With teens eager to obtain a license and gain independence, many consider driving an entitlement rather than a privilege. However, this possibility often depends on a family’s socioeconomic status.
More than 86% of 16 to 18-year-old drivers from households with an annual income of over $100,000 were licensed or had a learner’s permit, compared to 57% of teens from households making $50,000 or less, according to a study by The Zebra, a car insurance company.
However, the overall teen driving rate has decreased over the years. According to the University of Michigan, 71.5% of high school seniors had a license in 2015 compared to 85.3% in 1996.
One explanation for this decline is that teenagers have opted for online rather than in-person hangouts with friends, decreasing the need for a car, according to another study by the University of Michigan.
From a parent’s perspective, a self-transporting teen provides convenience for the household. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, in 2014, about 90% of parents signed waivers exempting their teen drivers from the intermediate license restriction of allowing only one unrelated minor passenger in the vehicle without adult supervision.
“It’s overwhelming if you have multiple kids who [need] to be driven all over,” Carney said. “As soon as kids [are] able to get a school permit, I think a lot of families feel relief.”
When teens do obtain a permit, their driving habits often mirror those of their parents.
“Kids start mimicking parent behaviors from a really young age, so whatever’s learned about the prioritization of safety is probably well established even before driving,” Peek-Asa said.
Peek-Asa believes driver’s education can impact this prior learning with different methods than currently employed.
“Driver’s ed programs focus more on how to maneuver the car and less on safety,” Peek-Asa said. “Often, they’ll approach safety by showing a lot of pictures of crashes, which from a learning neurobiology standpoint isn’t a great way to encourage [safer] behavior.”
Parental influence also plays a role when determining the time a teen gets their permit. Alarape wanted to get a permit at age 14, but her parents were reluctant to allow her to start driving.
“I had to get my permit a year later because it took a lot of convincing [for my parents] to let me go,” Alarape said. “I think they were just kind of in denial about the fact that their child is growing up.”
Peek-Asa views driving as a chance for teens to take initiative in their actions.
“Some parents are not the best role models in driving, and teens can see that and choose to act differently,” Peek-Asa said. “It’s an opportunity for teens to really make their own choice.”