Teaching the next generation to drive


I’m teaching my 2 oldest sons to drive. One of them is 18, way past time to get his license, and the other is 16.

I’m teaching them to drive, instead of sending them to Driver’s Ed class at their school for a couple of reason: number 1, it costs $300+ per kid, and also, because I think I can do a better job, with individualized instruction and a healthy respect for the power you are wielding when you drive.

It seems kids these days aren’t really excited about driving, and are delaying getting their driver’s license. Unlike when I was younger, when kids eagerly got their permit at 16, and their license as soon as they turned 17.

According to National Geographic, not only are “young people are not only driving less than teens did a generation ago, they aren’t even getting licenses.” The number 19 year olds with driver’s licenses fell from 87% in 1983 to 70% in 2010, while 17 year olds fell from 69% in 1983 to 46% in 2010.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that high school seniors who had a driver’s license fell from 85% in 1996 to 73% in 2010. A study by AAA shows: 54% of teens are licensed before they turn 18; 44% get their license within a year of turning 16. According to U.S. Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan, the number of licensed teens has dropped from 1980 to 2010: 16 year olds went from 44% to 28%, 17 year olds from 66% to 45%, 18 year olds from 75% to 61%, and 19 year olds from 80% to 70%.

The Washington Post says:

One recent survey from AAA found that just over half of teenagers get a license by the age of 18, a big drop from the past: “Some teens don’t bother because they have no access to a car; being licensed no longer holds the social status it once did for many young people; there are other ways to get where they want to go; and the cost of gas and auto insurance are too high.”

What’s going on? Why are teens delaying getting a driver’s license?

According to an AAA survey, teens waited because:

  • 44% – didn’t have a car
  • 36% – expensive gas prices
  • 35% – didn’t get around to it

According to University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, teens’ reasons were:

  • 37% – too busy / not enough time to get a driver’s license
  • 32% – owning and maintaining car was too expensive (car, gas, insurance)
  • 31% – able to get transportation from others
  • 22% – prefer to bike / walk
  • 17% – prefer public transit
  • 22% – never planned on getting a driver’s license

There seems to be a generational shift with today’s Millenials, which apparently started around 1984. A number of things have changed, and as a result, less teens are getting their driver’s license, driving, or buying cars.

Cost / money / employment / can’t find a job – It’s expensive: car, gas, insurance.

Internet / social media – Teens who use social media are less likely to own or drive a car.

The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute notes “that the percentage of young drivers is inversely related to the proportion of Internet users. Social media may be taking the place of motorized transportation.”

A quote in USA Today:

“There’s been unprecedented change in young people’s behavior. There’s sort of a lack of interest (in driving)… They don’t have to drive. They socialize online. They shop online. I think we’re being blind if we don’t accept that the Internet is changing travel.”

The phone, not a car, is the new “cool” path to freedom –  “For younger consumers, the smartphone may be the shiny new cars from previous generations,” said a lead automotive analyst at Gartner.

Says Digital Trends:

“While having a car was status and freedom for generations past, the modern cell phone, Internet and the instant connectivity they engender are the new freedoms. There’s no need to hop in a car and drive to someone’s house or the Quick-E-Mart parking lot to be seen and get the latest scoop. That’s what Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and Google hangouts are for, and much of it is free or close to it. It’s also instantaneous and does not require trips to the DMV, DEQ or gas station.”

Being able to get around without driving – There’s been an increase in mass transit – buses, street cars, light rail trains. Or, they’re getting rides from parents or friends. And there’s always alternative forms of transit – walking, biking.

Cars are boring now – “The old muscle cars are all gone now, shined up and sitting undriven in collectors’ garages. Driving on a budget has become a lot less fun as cars have become safer, more efficient but also dull as sand.”

Generational shift in feeling – The nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group  argues that something fundamental has changed in how young people feel about cars:

“Many members of Generation Y have reduced their driving because they choose to take transportation alternatives instead of cars to school, work, and recreation, and because many have chosen to live in ways that require less time behind the wheel of a car,”

That being said…

My kids are in no hurry to get a license.

My older son’s best friend is a sophomore in college, and just got his license. Last year, when my son was a senior in high school and all his peers were getting their license, one of them was involved in a horrific accident driving in to school one morning. He caused a 3-car accident that sent 4 people to the hospital, and killed someone. After that, my son didn’t even want to get his permit.

And I didn’t mind.

I’ve always joked that my husband married me for my driving.

My dad calls me Parnelli Jones, as once I learned to drive, I always went everywhere at top speed. I loved the feel of driving fast, and driving felt very intuitive to me. I could feel the car and the road and the wind. Driving was freedom. And independence. It was exhilarating.

My parents wouldn’t teach me to drive. They refused, so I took Driver’s Ed, which was offered free at my high school. The first time I was behind the wheel, in the Driver’s Ed car full of students and a poor teacher, I hit the accelerator and everyone’s head’s snapped back. Then, when I hit the brake, everyone pitched forward. It was rough, and definitely not impressive. After a couple weeks, though, I had it down, and could feel the right amount of pressure to apply.

The first car I drove was my parent’s old 1969 Pontiac Tempest coupe. A burgundy colored beast, with wide doors and a big chrome front, my dad, who did all his own mechanical work on our cars, had adjusted the throttle to idle at 25 mph.

It was awesome.

At a stop sign, as you’d take your foot off the brake, the car would to leap forward. You could feel the V8 power straining to burst out.

When I was invited to prom, I insisted on driving. Unfortunately, that week, my dad had been assaulted by a couple of deer on his way to work one day. As a result, both doors were dented and wouldn’t open. No worries for me – I’d seen Dukes of Hazard on TV, and so I would just leave the windows down, and swing myself in, wearing my floor length prom grown.

I’d often drive barefoot, too, so I could feel the power and how the car was responding. I loved the feeling of control.

And the feeling of the car being airborne. I got to know all the places within 25 miles where, at the right speed, you could jump your car.

The first time it snowed, I called my dad in a panic. “Please, come and get me,” I begged, “ I’m scared; I’ve never driven in snow.” But of course he wouldn’t, couldn’t come. “Just take it slow,” he said, “You’ll do fine. If you have trouble, it means you’re not going slow enough.”

I made it home. Slowly. And though it was a white-knuckled ride, I was so proud of myself when I finally pulled in the driveway. Hah! I did it!

After I graduated high school, I needed my own car to drive to college and work. I bought a VW Beetle from our neighbor for $400. After I bought it, I realized it was a standard. A manual transmission. With an extra pedal down there – a clutch. What the…? Again, my parents refused to teach me how to drive. My dad explained you have to press down the clutch when you shift gears, and expressed confidence I would figure it out.

After an hour, I was able to get out of the driveway. I drove up and down our country road, trying to get a feel for things. The next day, I drove a few miles. When I got back, I thought, what’s that smell? Then realized I’d been driving with the parking brake on. So many things to remember.

Pretty quickly, I picked it up, and learned I loved driving standard even more than automatic. Now, I was really in control, choosing whether to start quick or slow, and when to shift.

It was a great beginner’s car. It could be push started. It couldn’t go over 60 mph ever, or, over 35 mph up hills. If I had a car full of friends, and we came to a steep hill, they’d have to get out and push, while I drove. And the heat was permanently on. I loved it. I stripped 2 axles in it over the year I had it. What can I say?

Hanging out with friends at a local dance club, I first met my future husband, and when he said he had a Pontiac Trans Am in his garage at his parent’s house, I offered to drive us all there. On the way, going through an intersection, I jumped the car, and he, not expecting it, smashed his head against the roof.

He did have a sports car in the garage, and I was intrigued.

We would go for drives together. He would meet me at work, then follow me home. We’d drive in front and behind each other, swapping places on the straightaways, occasionally using our turn signals to send each other messages. Kind of like our own personal Morse code.

One day, after we were engaged, he asked me to slow down. I didn’t have to drive everywhere at 85 mph. He was worried about me. Psshaww, I told him.

There’d been a couple times when I know I’d pushed it. When that little voice would whisper in my ear – “That was kinda close”. Or, “Hey, you might have had an issue there.” But, even though I was a speed demon, I was careful. I wasn’t stupid.

One day, we were road rallying through the back roads, me in my Honda CRX, in front as usual, going 75 mph on roads probably meant for 55. We came to a straightaway, and he blew by me in his Trans Am. Like I was standing still. And then he didn’t slow down. Huh?

I raced to catch up with him, and soon was chasing him at 75-85 mph. Approaching 90, I started to feel uncomfortable; clearly this speed was too much for these roads. Eventually he slowed down, and when we both pulled into my driveway, I got out and railed on him – “You were going way too fast! You could have been hurt!”

And he stood there, casually leaning against his car, with his arms folded. And gave me a crooked grin. “Now you know how I feel.”

That night I decided I had too much to lose now, and would start driving slower. Closer to the speed limit. I had a future with a guy I loved. I couldn’t endanger that. Things had changed.

So now, I’m on the other side of the fence – I’m teaching our kids to drive.

They are both so different. One of them is timid and unsure. The other one is more like me, and can intuitively feel how to handle the vehicle.

I tell them to feel how the car is responding, and to feel the road. To be aware. To drive with all of their senses. To always be looking. To keep their eyes on the road. To listen to whether the road sounds wet or icy. To smell if they’re burning rubber. Or the scent of rain.

I tell them to take off their sneakers, and drive in their socks, or barefoot.

I tell them being able to drive is one of the best things about being a grown up. It means freedom – you go where you want, when you want.

I tell them they are behind a 3,000 pound hulk of metal, and to respect the power. To respect the fact that people die in, or are killed by, car accidents every day.

I tell them to follow the laws, and to be responsible. With great power comes great responsibility.

And while I want them to know the power and freedom and thrill of driving – I hope they don’t drive like me.


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