The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 15, 2013

For some teens, no rush to get a driver's license

Associated Press

— LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Briana Phillips turned 16 in August, but is in absolutely no rush to get her driver's license.

In an effort to nudge her forward, her mother, Cat Phillips, got her the Pennsylvania driver's manual last March.

"When we find it, she's probably going to have to wipe the dust off of it," Cat Phillips said wryly.

The Hempfield High School junior said she expects to get her learner's permit at some point, but for now she's busy with powder-puff football practice, rugby club, her studies and her part-time job at a pizza shop.

She is one of many teenagers who, faced with what was once considered to be an important rite of passage — obtaining a driver's license at the very first opportunity — are saying, "Whatever."

"I want to wait until I can afford to buy a car," Briana said. "What's the point of having a license if you don't have a car?"

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the state in 1999 had nearly 154,000 licensed drivers ages who were 16 or 17.

By last year, that number had dropped by nearly half, to 79,383.

A recent national study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that fewer than half — 44 percent — of teens now get their driver's licenses within the year after they become eligible to do so.

Just over half — 54 percent — get their licenses before they turn 18 (the percentage is significantly higher for teens living in high-income households).

Two decades ago, the AAA study noted, two-thirds of teens were licensed by their 18th birthdays.

Of course, there still are plenty of teenagers getting licensed as soon as the law allows. But in visits last week to two schools — suburban Hempfield High School and McCaskey East High School in Lancaster city — it was easy to find teens who were delaying their entry into America's car culture.

This has worrying implications, the AAA study maintained: If young drivers wait until they're 18 to get their licenses, they won't be subject to graduated driver licensing (GDL) requirements.

In Pennsylvania, this means they won't need to put in 65 documented hours of driving practice. They'll be unfettered by the restrictions placed on drivers under 18.

Pennsylvania instituted its GDL program in 1999.

Isabel Bentz, owner of A-1 Mumma's Driving School in Lancaster, said teenagers who live with their parents tend to get more support as they acquire the skills they need behind the wheel.

"It's kind of scary" that drivers, on turning 18, could get licensed with "zero driving experience," she said, adding, "but maybe on the other hand, you're more mature. ... One would hope."

PennDOT spokeswoman Jan T. McKnight said that while "people who wait until 18 or older to obtain their driver's license are not subject to the GDL requirements, it is impossible to predict whether they will be more crash-prone than those who go through the program. We do know that the GDL program has dramatically reduced the crash and fatality numbers for 16- and 17-year-olds over the past 15 years. Driving is a skill that improves with practice."