Driving Me Crazy

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Justin Allison>On a recent Sunday afternoon, I found myself in a predicament familiar to any suburban parent: I needed to be in two places at the same time. My 16-year-old daughter had SAT tutoring in Mount Washington and my 13-year-old son had math tutoring in Towson. She needed to be dropped off at the same time that he needed to be picked up.

I spent the entire afternoon driving between the two locations at top speed, praying I wouldn’t run out of gas and cursing under my breath because I was late to pick up my son, but couldn’t warn him since once again, he’d left his beloved cellphone in my car. When we finally pulled into my driveway in Pikesville at around 5 p.m. (just in time to do the grocery shopping), my daughter, sensing my exhaustion, said, “Teach me to drive.”

“Get your permit and I’ll teach you,” I told her.

“But I don’t have time,” she said.

Now this might sound funny to you—no time to learn to drive?—if you remember getting your drivers license as a simple ritual that involved going for a few spins around the parking lot with Mom or Dad before taking the test. Then, watch out folks, you’re hitting the open road.

It’s not so quick and easy for wannabe drivers today. All 50 states have a graduated licensing system (GLS) requiring new drivers to complete a three-part process involving about a 100-hour time commitment before they’re handed the proverbial keys to the car. The first step is getting a learner’s permit, which requires passing a written test with 20 questions. Then it’s on to 30 hours worth of driver’s education classes and six hours of supervised driving time—plus 60 hours of practice driving with a driver older than 21 who has held a license for three years or more. Only when all these requirements are met, there’s the road test. If you pass, you get a provisional license.

Teens can drive with the provisional license, but they can’t legally transport another person under 18, with the exception of immediate family members—in other words, they can’t drive their friends. And they can’t stay out late since they’re only permitted to drive unsupervised between 5 a.m. and midnight.

The stringent requirements were enacted in the interest of safety, and according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, they work. On average, teen crashes have been reduced between 10 and 30 percent since graduated licensing laws went into effect. And states with the strictest laws see the best outcomes.

But a side effect is that many kids just don’t have the time or the will to complete the requirements. Which means parents play chauffeur for a few more months (or years). As one mother put it, “All of us ran out to get our licenses right away. That was just what we did. But nowadays, it seems like kids are in no big rush.”

Harrison Linker of Lutherville obtained his learner’s permit as soon as he reached the required age—15 years and 9 months—but waited an entire year to take driver’s ed. “I have a lot of homework so I didn’t want to have [driver’s ed] classes after school and on weekends,” says the Towson High School senior. Harrison completed driver’s ed and the required practice hours during the summer before his senior year, turned 17 in October and took his road test in November. According to his mother, Amy Linker, for the most part, the yearlong wait to get his license was not a hardship.

Jared Won, 16, of Phoenix also is in no hurry to learn to drive. “I kind of enjoy being in the car when Mom drives,” says the Loyola High School sophomore. “It’s relaxing, and I’m not in the mood to go to MVA, and take the test.”

Jared’s mother, Darlene Won, says it’s not always convenient to drive him everywhere, but she’s perfectly happy about Jared’s lack of interest. “He can wait as long as he wants. I have to say, I’m nervous about Jared driving on dark country roads when I know that others are driving 60 miles an hour in a 40-mile zone,” she says. “It’s scary.”

Justin Allison, a junior at Carver Center, also is putting off getting his license. He got his permit last July and took one of the three driving lessons for which he registered in mid-August. He also drove with his father on several occasions. “The first time I drove with my father was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I was shaking when I got out of the car,” says Justin. “I would like to drive to be able to get from one point to another, because I don’t like to rely on my parents, but I just wish I could teleport there.” Since that’s not an option, he’ll probably get his license in May.

At Elite Driving School, a Maryland-based business with 15 locations throughout the state, owner David Resnick has noticed that teens are waiting longer to get their driver’s licenses. He cites a 2011 study, published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, that reported that the percentages of teenagers with licenses declined by as much as 20 percent in the 25 years between 1983 and 2008.

“There isn’t the same urgency about driving that there used to be,” says Resnick. Social activity, he explained once revolved around driving with friends. “With social media, they can have conversations on Facebook, through Skype or instant messaging without having to be together.” Others who have theorized about why teens are waiting longer to drive also maintain that social media has changed the way teens socialize, making driving less imperative.

The economic downturn also may have played a part in teens waiting longer to get their drivers’ licenses, says Resnick. On average, he says, a driver’s education course in Maryland costs around $350. “Parents might not have wanted to incur that type of expense for something that isn’t necessary,” he says, “At 16, kids can still ride a school bus.”

Patrick Francis, founder of Roland Park Driving School, says he’s “100 percent in favor” of kids getting their licenses when they’re older. “I wish they’d make the driving age 18. There’s such a big difference between a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old,” says Francis, 64, who has been teaching new drivers for 18 years. “The part of the brain you need to drive isn’t fully developed when you’re 16. Sixteen-year-olds think they’re invincible, but the No. 1 killer of teenagers is car accidents.”

Studies show that when driving the same distances, the fatal crash rate for drivers ages 16 to 19 is four times higher than for drivers ages 25 to 69. The number of deaths caused by teen drivers is greater than deaths of teens by cancer, suicide and homicide combined.

At Maryland AAA, spokeswoman Ragina Averella says, “While it’s unclear what are the precise reasons for the delay, teens deciding to wait a little longer to obtain their licenses is good news.”

As for me, I guess I should take comfort, as I spend my Saturdays shuttling my kids from one activity to another. Sure, I’m shaving years off my life with the rushing and the stress, but at least I don’t have to worry about my daughter driving the roads alone.

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