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Stuck in neutral: Why more teens are choosing to not get a driver’s license

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

The ease of ride-sharing, the immediate convenience of social media, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in young people choosing 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 tells "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 explains. "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. Federal data shows that only a quarter of 16-year-olds have their driver's license — about half as many as teens in the mid-90s.

Another 2021 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, tells 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 adds. "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 explains. "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."

In addition to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, experts say the decrease in teens obtaining a driver's license is due in part to the popularity of ride-sharing apps and electric scooters. Social media, experts say, is also replacing in-person get-togethers.

According to one survey, 61% of teens between 13 and 17 preferred texting or using social media over talking in-person.

Gen Z is not the only group deciding to forego driving. One 2020 study published in the Journal of Management Studies found that Millennials drive around 8% less than members of Gen X and Baby Boomers.

What parents can do to help

Helping young people 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 good," she explains. "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, saying parents can help kids her age by being "patient" and "understanding" because getting a driver's license can "get 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 adds. "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 says. "Put a priority on not answering the phone and not eating behind the wheel.”

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 notes.

Taking a defensive driving course or other driver's education course together is another way parents can support their teens as puruse their 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 — she's in the process of obtaining her license now.

"They did get behind me and urge me to do this," she explains. "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 says. "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 adds

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 says. "I'm able to get through this and see the better side to bad things."

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