Why aren’t teenagers driving anymore?
Parents are baffled as their kids delay or forgo a driver’s license
By Caitlin Gibson
February 21, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST
When Dawn Johnson was a teenager growing up in Northern Virginia in the 1990s, she remembers counting down the days until she could start driving. The freedom to see her friends whenever she wanted was tantalizing, she says: “I wanted to get out of my house.”
So when her son, Derek, turned 15 nearly 10 months ago, she and her husband thought he might feel the same. “We were like, Derek, don’t you want to do this?” she says. “And he was like, ‘Nah. I’m good.’ And we just — we did not understand it.”
Driving a car was once a widely coveted rite of passage, but a rising number of kids no longer see it that way: 60 percent of American 18-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2021, down from 80 percent in 1983, according to data from the Federal Highway
Administration. In that same period, the number of 16-year-olds with licenses dropped from 46 percent to 25 percent. Today’s driving-age teens are navigating a very different world, filled with new complexities and anxieties.
The allure of independent mobility might be dimmed by the digital connectivity that didn’t exist when previous generations came of age. Teens can summon an Uber or Lyft with the tap of a finger. Parents can monitor a child’s every move through an app. Phones are at once a potential distraction behind the wheel, and also why teens might feel less motivated to drive in the first place: When hangouts can happen at any time online, there’s less urgency to meet up with friends in person.
Johnson suspects this might be what’s going on with Derek. “He spends a lot of time playing video games,” she says. “That’s where his community is. So he doesn’t really need to go anywhere to hang out with people.”
A few weeks ago, his mom finally issued an ultimatum. “I said: You either need to go get a job or you need to get your learner’s permit.” Derek got his learner’s permit.
She urged him toward this milestone, but she still feels the mixed emotions that most parents describe as they watch their kids take any big step that carries them forward, and further away.
“The thought of him driving terrified me at first,” Johnson says. “But I took him out for the first time, and he was immediately good at it. So I was like, ‘Oh, okay … he’s going to be fine.’ I’m still going to be terrified, don’t get me wrong, but I really just want him to have that independence.”
She wouldn’t mind a little more freedom for herself, too — after all, the teen driving years are also a rite of passage for parents.
“Like, when we’re out of tomatoes,” Johnson says, and laughs, “I want to be able to say, ‘Hey, I need tomatoes. Go to the store and get a tomato.’”
As adults try to decipher the decline of teenage drivers, a slew of complicating factors have emerged: Reports of road rage and aggressive driving are soaring. American kids are experiencing a mental health crisis that has been deemed a national emergency; the prospect of driving can be especially daunting to kids who are already struggling with anxiety or depression. Socioeconomic and racial variables enter the equation, too: Driver’s education classes for teens are mandatory and typically cost hundreds of dollars, and car insurance is hugely expensive. For parents of Black teens and young drivers of color, there is the added fear of a child being pulled over by police.
Joanna von Staden, a licensed clinical mental health counselor who works with kids and teens, is particularly attuned to the ways that a child’s mental health might intersect with their reluctance to drive. In the past few years, she’s noticed a significant increase in the number of baffled parents who talk to her about this: “The parents keep coming in and saying: ‘I don’t get it, they don’t want to sign up for driving school. Are they lazy? What’s going on?’” she says. When von Staden asks the teens why they’re feeling disinterested,
they often shrug and say they don’t know. Sometimes they tell her they don’t need to drive; they have friends who can drive them, or they can use a ride-share app, or their parents will give them a lift.
But when she probes a bit deeper, she says, different answers emerge. “The disinterest is really stemming from a level of anxiety — specifically around getting older, and having this huge responsibility.” She sees a particular correlation between those feelings and her patients who have diagnoses of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, the kids who strive for perfectionism, the ones who might be more likely to experience intrusive thoughts about worst-case scenarios.
And sometimes parents can unknowingly augment or enable those fears, von Staden says.
“Driving is a big responsibility, bad things can happen … but that fear might mean that when a child says ‘I don’t want to drive,’ parents might be like, ‘Oh, good!’” she says. “Then that’s just feeding into and reinforcing that fear. You don’t have to buy a car or drive all the time, but this is a life skill. And we can do hard things, we can do scary things.”
Many kids have also mentioned feeling unnerved by the fact that their parents can track their every move, von Staden says, using apps like Life360 that let parents see how fast a kid is driving, if their gas is getting low, if they had to brake too quickly, or if they picked up their phone while the car was in motion.
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“As a parent, I’m like, ‘What a fantastic app!’ von Staden says. “But as an adolescent, I can’t imagine the level of stress that would cause, knowing your parents have eyes on you at all times.”
Shannon Humphrey, a mom of two in Texas, is among these parents. She downloaded Life360 when her 16-year-old daughter learned to drive. It helped ease her mind, she says. “I would stalk her the entire time she was out,” Humphrey says. “The minute she would go out the door I would open [the app] and have it in front of me.”
But that was only in the beginning, she says. “She’s got a lot of experience driving now, so now I’m relaxed. Now I just check it two or three times while she’s out.”
Humphrey’s 19-year-old son, however, is not particularly interested in driving. She thought it might be because of a particularly intimidating thoroughfare on the route to school. But he insists that he isn’t scared so much as bored by the prospect of driving, she says; he’d rather sit in the passenger seat and look at his phone.
Other parents say they’ve noticed this tendency, too — which is why, after Nanette Hartley and her husband taught their older son to drive in San Diego County, they devised a new rule for his younger brother: “The year before he was old enough to earn a learner’s permit, his time in the car with us was device-free and he had to pay attention to our driving,” she says.
Humphrey’s son recently passed his road test, but he still hasn’t initiated much practice driving, and his parents aren’t pushing him. “We were concerned that our son was nervous to drive and we certainly didn’t want a nervous driver on the road — that’s not good for him or anyone on the road,” she says. “We feel like this is just a short season of our lives. We’ll just drive him around.”
Former professional drag racer Doug Herbert has an acute understanding of why parents and teens might feel fearful. Fifteen years ago, he lost his two sons in a car accident less than a mile from their home. That same year, he started teaching his sons’ friends defensive driving skills, which soon led him to become the founder of B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe), a nonprofit that offers free defensive driving instruction to teens. This year, he says, he expects the program to reach 20,000 students across 18 states.
Even as the number of teen drivers has dropped, the demand for his program has climbed, he says. From his vantage point, it seems that of the teens who are learning to drive, more of them (or their parents) are interested in additional preparation for safely navigating increasingly volatile roads.
“Something we’ve noticed over the years is that parents are not pushing their teenagers to get a driver’s license,” he says. The drivers coming to his training are often older than they once were — students who are about to head off to college, or about to graduate college. “We’ve definitely seen things trend toward older first-time drivers,” he says.
His goal is to prepare teens to face the scenarios that are most likely to threaten their safety on the roads, and build their confidence, he says. He also wants them to enjoy the experience of driving.
“I drove racecars at 330 miles per hour, so driving cars has been really fun for me, and so that’s one of the things we try to convey to these teens — driving a car is really fun,” he says. “It’s also a privilege, and you’ve got to really pay attention.”
It took Michelle McNally’s 17-year-old daughter, Megan, more than a year to get her license. But when she finally started driving, the whole family experienced something of a transformation.
McNally saw her daughter immediately embrace a newfound sense of responsibility. She came home one day with a “New Driver” bumper sticker that a friend had given her, and
promptly put the decal on the car. McNally had noticed the apparent proliferation of these stickers and thought her daughter might find one embarrassing, but instead it seemed to calm her nerves.
“She wanted people to know she was new,” McNally says. “Like, ‘They need to be patient; I don’t want anybody to honk at me.’”
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McNally felt a bit nervous, too. At first, she checked Life360 constantly when her daughter was out, especially when she was driving her little brother to school across town in Indianapolis. But over time, everyone’s sense of confidence grew. Megan eventually took the “New Driver” sticker off the car. McNally stopped checking the tracking app so often.
“Having that freedom has become really important to her. She’s more likely to be ready on time if she knows she’s driving herself. She’s nicer to her brother now that they drive to school together,” McNally says. “She’s a lot better at planning ahead because she wants to know if she can have the car. There have been noticeable leaps in maturity.”
Carrie Schuessler has seen this kind of growth in her kids, too. A mom of six in Apopka, Fla., who has spent years driving her kids everywhere, Schuessler was highly motivated for her oldest three to get their licenses when they were eligible. They were eager, too, she says, which makes them outliers among their friends.
“My kids often say to each other, “Why don’t they want to drive? Aren’t they sick of their parents driving them? Are they just happy to stay home all the time?’” Schuessler says. She thinks parental anxiety has something to do with this. “So many parents I know are obsessed with keeping their kids safe at all costs,” and refuse to allow them to ride their bikes out of sight, or climb trees, or skateboard, she says.
She thinks this sense of wariness has “transferred to the kids themselves,” she says. “Many of my kids’ friends say they are personally very fearful of driving. And apparently, this fear overcomes the natural desire for freedom that most teenagers have.”
In the transformed landscape of modern childhood, kids adapt to their new roles. Among a circle of nondriving peers, Schuessler’s kids love to be behind the wheel, so they often find themselves chauffeuring carloads of older friends.
Her teens don’t mind at all, she says. “They’ve learned to ask for gas money.”