November 2, 2017

Why aren't teens getting their license?

I missed National Teen Driver Safety Week by a couple weeks this year (it was October 15-21, 2017. I was trying to think about why it wasn't on my radar like usual. Were there a lot of other things going on in the news? Ummm...yes. But I think there's another reason — driving doesn't seem to be a big thing with a lot of my teen patients right now. In a totally non-scientific chart review of my 16-17-year-old patients in the past few months, only about 50% have their driver's license (and plenty haven't even taken driver's ed).

This is a stark contrast to when I was 15 ½ years old and called the DMV on a weekly basis to try to set up my driver's test for the actual day of my 16th birthday. Getting your driver's license was the ultimate sign of freedom — remember the awesome 1980's movie License to Drive (and if you haven't seen this, stop what you're doing and immediately watch this movie. It stands the test of time). When I was a teen, parents also encouraged their teens to get their license as soon as possible since it meant they wouldn't have to haul their teens around anymore.

Are my patients different than the teens throughout the US? The answer is "no" (at least not in regards to getting a license). According to AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, only 54% of teens were licensed by their 18th birthday. In comparing this to past years, a University of Michigan study showed that in 2014, just 24.5% of 16-year-olds had a license, a significant decrease from 1983, when 46.2% did. What could be the cause of this drop? It may be related to the costs of owning/maintaining a car in a time where teens have a high unemployment rate (although current teen unemployment rate is around 13%, much better than teen unemployment which was above 20% from 2008-2014). It may in part be the result of the graduated licensing laws (however this was the reason in less than 25% of teens in the AAA survey). Maybe people are living in places with better public transportation, and don't forget the availability of Uber at your fingertips. The Atlantic published an article that links the decline of teens getting their license (and a slew of other behavior changes) to the increasing prevalence of smart phones, postulated to be due to decreasing the in-person connections amongst members of this generation and less need for independence.

Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, I find it fascinating.