Last week, my wife Diane and I took our granddaughter out to practice expressway driving. She hasn’t been driving all that long and we wanted her to get more experience on interstate highways, before she drives home for fall break.
Although she drives quite well, the experience evoked a flood of anxiety from the time when we taught our own children how to drive. Midway through our route we stopped at a Starbucks. My latte was quite good, but I really could have used a Xanax.
Diane and I had a deal that I would sit in the front seat on the way to Starbucks and she would ride up front on the way back. When it came time to leave, however, Diane said that I had done such a good job and had such a calming voice that I should remain in the front seat for the return trip. She knows I’m a sucker for a compliment. Later I learned that according to a study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, the most common driving advice to teenagers is to slow down when approaching intersections. There was a lot of that advice coming from the back seat.
When I took driver’s education, I was in the car with our instructor when he said, “Now, I’m going to teach you something really important.” He pulled out a cigarette, matches and a can of beer and said, “Here’s how to light a cigarette, while holding a beer and steering with your knees.” Today, I can hardly list how many things were wrong about that. On another occasion, when a student was driving, he pulled out a 4-inch firecracker, set it on the dashboard, and lit it. Fortunately the firecracker was a fake. He said he testing us to see how we drove under pressure.
Driver’s education was offered in most high schools beginning in the 1950’s, but over time most schools dropped the course. Research suggested that it wasn’t particularly effective, it was expensive, and there was pressure for more academics. When our youngest son, David, was old enough to drive, the school recommended using private behind the wheel instruction. We enrolled him in a driving school run by Sears. He completed the course and got his license test. From then on, however, whenever we drove past Sears we would say, “Hey Dave, there’s your alma mater.” That joke never got old.
I can also remember teaching our oldest son to drive. He tended to drive too fast and wasn’t able to judge how much to slow down when approaching other cars or intersections. I always said that he drove like he thought that our car had the best brakes in the world. I drove a number of substandard cars and never fully trusted the brakes to hold.
When I was growing up, being able to drive was an extremely important milestone. According to historian Gary Cross from Pennsylvania State University, “For nearly a century, coming of age in America meant getting behind the wheel. A driver’s license marked the transition from childhood and dependence to adult responsibility and freedom.”
In America, cars and driving, also have been traditionally linked to building flirtation skills through cruising. Driving around without a set destination was previously a hallmark of teen culture. Vehicles full of pubescent males drove around in packs, displaying their automobiles to each other, but especially to girls. Not all that long ago our niece in Wisconsin met her future husband while cruising.
High performance cars were sought after as macho symbols. I can remember the ongoing rivalry in our town between the owner of a tricked-out Dodge Coronet and a guy who owned a customized Chevy El Camino. There was a never-ending debate over which car was fastest that took place Friday nights in the parking lot of the burger drive-in. The guy who owned the Dodge was considered by many adults in town as a borderline delinquent, but he ended up getting elected president of the school board. Things have changed a lot since then. The percentage of American 16-year-olds with driver’s licenses was 46.2% in 1983, but only 25.6% in 2018 and this trend seems to be continuing.
There are a number of reasons for this change. Today automobiles and car insurance cost a lot more and autos last longer and are more difficult to repair. Thus, teens with limited financial resources have less access to autos.
Getting a driver’s license is also more difficult due to licensure laws changes that raised age requirements and imposed various restrictions on younger drivers. Many locales passed ordinances banning cruising and related activities. Freedom and privacy is also easier to obtain now, since both parents often work and homes are frequently left unattended.
In addition most adolescents today are connected with their peers through digital technology. They spend a good deal of time online and have significantly less face-to-face contact than past generations Teens also used their parents or ride sharing services such as Uber for transportation and have little need to drive.
Anxiety is also a big factor. In an on-line survey by Zebra Insurance, 25% of teens said that they were simply afraid to learn to drive. This, along with peer influence, seems to be the primary explanation for the decrease in teenage driving.
Many experts believe that allowing teens to postpone getting a driver’s license may result in a disservice to them. Driving is an important life skill in our society, akin to cleaning, managing money, cooking, or doing laundry. Not encouraging teenagers to get their driver’s license can be seen as a way of infantilizing them, reinforcing avoidance anxiety, and inadvertently encouraging an isolated agoraphobic lifestyle.
Maybe, however, teens are just smarter than us and feel what’s the hurry to become an adult, with all of its pressures, and prefer to just ride serenely in the back seat as long as possible.