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Fewer teens desperate to drive — is the Internet the reason?

“Driving is really not thbig deal” says Manual Quay 16 sophomore Waubonsie Valley High School.

“Driving is really not that big of a deal,” says Manual Quay, 16, a sophomore at Waubonsie Valley High School.

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Updated: February 23, 2012 8:12AM



Waubonsie Valley High School sophomore Manual Quay turns 16 in July, and — surely — all the Aurora teen can think about is getting his driver’s license, sliding behind the steering wheel and driving as far away from his parents as possible.

Right?

Nope.

“Driving is really not that big of a deal,” Quay said, after his mom drove him to school last week. “I’m in no rush.”

And neither, it seems, are plenty of other American 16-year-olds.

In 1983, about 46 percent of Americans that age had a driver’s license, but by 2008, only 31 percent had one, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Older teens are also driving less: The number of 18-year-olds with licenses fell from 80 percent in 1983 to 65 percent in 2008, while the number of 17-year-olds on the road dropped from 69 percent to 50 percent.

In fact, the number of drivers all the way up to 29 has dropped, according to the study, which is based on data from the Federal Highway Administration.

Study co-author Michael Sivak says the Internet may be a big reason for the drop.

“Virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact,” Sivak wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, adding jokingly, “My favorite characterization of the social-media explanation (with some anecdotal evidence for it) is that ‘driving interferes with texting.’ ”

Concerns about preserving the environment, the recent economic downturn and a migration of young people to the cities — where public transportation is more readily available — likely are all contributing to the lack of interest in driving, Sivak said.

Still, some Chicago area teens say getting a license remains a heady thrill.

“Freedom is a big part of it — that’s something teen­agers struggle with: freedom from their parents, freedom from society, [and] having a car extends your reach,” says Riley Campbell, 15, a sophomore at Evanston Township High School. “You don’t really feel that much freedom sitting in your basement with your laptop on Facebook.”

But Solomon Woods, 17, a senior at Evanston, is in no hurry to get his own license.

“As long as you have enough friends with a license, you’ll be fine,” he said.

If Woods can’t get a buddy to drive him somewhere, he can always ask his parents.

Sophie Zbesko, a junior, is one of Woods’ buddies and drives her parents’ car. She says she loves the freedom that comes with driving, but she suspects that other teens are either too busy or “not as motivated” to do the work to get a license, which generally includes 30 hours of classroom instruction.

She admits that having a license has drawbacks.

“There are some times when it’s annoying because I get phone calls and they’re like, ‘Hey, can you drive me?’ And I’m like, ‘You didn’t even ask me to hang out, but you expect me to drive you some place?!’ ”

She has an advantage some other teens don’t — her parents pay for her gas. In 1983, the average price for a gallon of unleaded in the United States was $1.24; in 2008, it was $3.27.

Costs could impact in other ways. Several area high school driver’s education teachers said school districts in recent years have increased fees to $400 or more for the behind-the-wheel portion of the class.

Recently retired teacher Art Kasak, who taught at Morton High School for more than two decades, said he saw his summer enrollment drop by almost half after fees went from $50 to $300.

And car insurance isn’t exactly cheap for teen drivers, leading some parents to delay the process.

Not everyone has complete faith in the numbers used in the University of Michigan study. Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., says compiling stats on the youngest license holders varies from state to state. Since the mid-1990s, states — including Illinois — have put restrictions on the age and number of passengers allowed for the youngest drivers. Rader suspects some states include those “provisional” license holders among the numbers they send to the federal Highway Administration, and some don’t. “That makes it difficult to make comparisons from year to year,” Rader said.

Sivak says the restrictions states put on teen driving aren’t what’s driving the numbers in the study because the drop in license holders from 1983 to 2008 extends far beyond the teen years.

Rader says there’s one thing that’s certain about the “graduated” licensing laws — they have reduced the number of crashes involving 16-year-olds who, statistically, are the most dangerous drivers on the road.

“The crash rate per mile driven for 16-year-olds is twice as high as it is for 18- and 19-year-olds,” Rader said. “It’s a combination of immaturity and driving inexperience. The teen crash problem has been improving since states began enacting graduated license laws. States that have adopted [them] have experienced crash reductions of 10 to 30 percent for teens.”

Contributing: Erika Wurst and Donna Vickroy



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