Why Teens Don’t Want to Drive

Getting a driver’s license used to be a crucial rite of passage. Today? Not so much.

My teenage life was defined by the things I had yet to experience—the full range, licit and otherwise, on the far shore of my transformation into adulthood. Highest on the list of what would literally get me there, the Holy Grail and the skeleton key to growing up, was my driver’s license. I counted down the days until I turned 16 and could finally take my test (passed on the first try!), relishing my autonomy and the fact that I wouldn’t have to be dropped off by my mom on my next date (provided I managed to get one). 

Many teens today, though, aren’t clamoring to get their license—barely more than half of American teens had one by age 18 in 2013, compared to two-thirds 20 years ago. They don’t appear to feel stigmatized having their parents chauffeur them around. In fact, they seem to prefer it. Where’s the burning shame of being seen with their bespectacled dad in his station wagon?

“We wanted to be closer to our children than our parents were to us,” says one friend with a non-driving teen. “And look where it’s gotten us. We couldn’t wait to get our license and escape from our folks. Now our kids are perfectly comfortable staying at home. With us.”

Our generation grew up roaming the neighborhood and coming home only at dark, but ironically we raised our own children on play dates and cell phones that keep them reachable at all times. While they’re more closely monitored than we were, they have more access to their peers through digital technology. Private messaging in my day meant getting a longer cord for the kitchen phone—anything else had to be done at someone’s house, at the mall, in the woods behind the park. It was harder and felt riskier than sending  a text—what I wouldn’t have given to be able to message the cute girl in AP English, instead of calling her house and having to ask her father’s permission to talk.

Does this mean today’s young people don’t have the same hunger to get out into the world on their own terms? I took a sampling of friends (yes, on Facebook), and the replies poured in. “I think they live in devices now,” said one parent of youngsters. “I just don’t think that driving represents the kind of independence it used to.”

“I will never understand this,” commented another. “The freedom of driving down the highway with the windows open, zooming around effortlessly—I LOVE IT.”

Has all this coddling made teens too risk-averse to drive? Could be. Maybe teens are already zooming around from screen to screen, experiencing a digital life without the need for real-time speed. To me this seems timid, and passive. To them, it seems like life. 

Marlon Brando’s Johnny, in The Wild One, was asked what he was rebelling against. He said, “Whadda you got?” 

And then he got on his motorcycle and terrorized a town. I’m not recommending kids today follow his example, but I’d like them to have the unpredictable adventures on the open road you can’t get at home—or from a glowing iPad.