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Stuck in neutral: COVID anxiety is keeping teens from pursuing their driver’s licenses

“I wasn’t going anywhere, so there wasn’t really a need to get my license.”
/ Source: TODAY

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in depression and anxiety among teens, causing some young people to delay or altogether avoid getting driver's licenses.

Campbell Burke, 17, was a sophomore in high school when COVID hit her Texas community and members of her family grew ill. It was during this time that her anxiety increased, she says, in no small part due to a very real concern for her family's health.

"I was trying to take care of myself, and because I was alone I felt kind of helpless," Burke told TODAY Parents. "It was a scary time, when I was just by myself and feeling alone."

In a pandemic-free world, Burke would have been preparing to take her driver's test — something she and her peers put off while sheltering in place and attending school virtually.

"I wasn't going anywhere, so there wasn't really a need to get my license," she explained. "Once a person in my friend group got their license, it took away the need to want it. And with how bad COVID was, I didn't really care to go anywhere that I didn't need to go. That added to the reasons why I didn't want to get my license."

Why more teens are delaying learning how to drive

Burke is not alone. A recent survey of nearly 700 parents conducted by Aceable, a Texas-based organization that offers online driver's education courses, found that 71% of participants reported a delay in their teen driver's education due to the ongoing pandemic. The same survey found 30% of both teens and adults did not feel a rush to obtain a driver's license.

"Aceable found that 87% of teens who started driving during the pandemic were anxious about it, and this is largely a part of the shutdowns," Laura Adams, senior driving analyst for Aceable, told TODAY. "Nine out of 10 parents actually said teens were postponing getting their license because they felt anxious about driving — so parents are confirming what teens are saying."

Studies have shown that an increase in anxiety while driving can result in a reduction in driver reaction times, leading to a potential increase in overall vehicle-related crashes. In 2021, car-related deaths increased by more than 10% from 2020, and traffic deaths reached a 20-year high in the early months of 2022.

"Over the years, teens have been pushing the age at which they get licensed," Adams added. "The pandemic seems to have exacerbated that, making (getting a license and driving) very, very scary for those teens."

Burke says that many of her friends felt anxiety about learning how to drive, but eventually "got over it."

"It does feel isolating, when I'm the only one going through this at this specific stage," she explained. "I know that most of them have gone through it, but when you're the only one going through it right now it feels isolating."

What parents can do to help

Helping teens not compare themselves to their peers is one of many ways Adams says parents can help support their teens as they consider obtaining a driver's license.

"Trying to push them too early is not a good direction for parents," she explained. "So it's about striking that balance and understanding that yes, even if all your friends have already gotten their license, that's OK. There is no deadline."

Burke agrees. She says parents can help kids her age by being "patient" and "understanding" because getting a driver's license can "get really, really stressful."

"I think a lot of parents understand the stress part of it, but they don't understand just how different kids can react," she added. "So just be patient and be willing to lend a helping hand."

That “helping hand,” Adams says, includes setting an example of what safe driving looks like. A 2021 study conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that 45% of drivers drive 15 mph or more over the speed limit on the freeway, 37% drive while talking on the phone, and nearly 40% drive while texting or sending an email.

“You can demonstrate not being distracted," Adams said. "Put a priority on not answering the phone even if it’s ringing, not eating behind the wheel — all of these kinds of temptations that we have.”

A reported 87% of teens who started driving during the pandemic were anxious about it.
A reported 87% of teens who started driving during the pandemic were anxious about it.Getty Images

Due to the pandemic, 74% of Americans said they planned to vacation by vehicle rather than by plane — adding to the growing need for parents to set clear examples of what it means to be an aware driver.

“If you’re on a road trip, believe me, they’re watching everything you do behind the wheel,” Adams noted.

Taking a defensive driving course or other driver's education course together is another way parents can support their teens as they navigate the process of getting a driver's license.

How to strike the right balance of encouragement and support

Burke does acknowledge that, from time to time, having her parents gently push her to test herself has been helpful in pursuing her driver's education. She's in the process of obtaining her license now that COVID-related restrictions have been lifted.

"They did get behind me and urge me to do this," she explained. "It can be kind of annoying sometimes, but it’s really helpful. I think these past couple years I’ve been a really big procrastinator, and I think (this process) is showing me that I can get over whatever I want."

A teen's own motivating factors can also help them move forward with their driver's education. Burke, who has two older sisters in college, says her "push factors" for pursuing her own driver's education is the freedom to move herself around.

"I can't really rely on someone else," she explained. "I want my independence. Soccer, for me, is a big thing, and I need to get myself to and from soccer and I don't want to put that on someone else."

I’m able to get through this and see the better side to bad things.

Campbell burke, age 17

Burke says her own motivating self-talk — encouraged and supported by her parents — also helps her to keep going.

"I just keep telling myself that once I get over this roadblock for me, everything will get easier," she said.

Burke says she has big plans for herself once she obtains her driver's license, including getting a job, doing "lots of shopping," going downtown — and, of course, driving herself to soccer practice.

But for her, the pride she will have in herself is what will be most valuable.

"It's a cliché thing to say, but it just goes to show that not everything is permanent," Burke said. "I'm able to get through this and see the better side to bad things."

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