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Teen drivers step on it — the brakes, that is

Tim Chou, 19, a student at the University of Illinois, gave up his gas-guzzling 1996 Nissan Quest. He now borrows dad’s Toyota. 

New York Times

Tim Chou, 19, a student at the University of Illinois, gave up his gas-guzzling 1996 Nissan Quest. He now borrows dad’s Toyota. 

SCHAUMBURG, Ill

For car-loving American teenagers, this is turning out to be the summer the cruising died.

Kevin Ballschmiede, 16, pined for his 1999 Dodge Ram — "my pride and joy" — the other night as he hung out in a parking lot in this town outside Chicago. Given that filling the 26-gallon tank can now cost more than $100, he had left it at home and caught a ride.

From coast to coast, American teenagers appear to be driving less this summer. Police officers who keep watch on weekend cruising zones say fewer youths are spending their time driving around in circles, with more of them hanging out in parking lots, malls or movie theaters.

The price spike in gasoline, to an average of $4.07 a gallon for regular unleaded, is so recent that government statistics do not yet capture the teenage-driving trend. But the figures show that overall demand for gasoline is dropping. In dozens of interviews, teenagers and their parents said the price of gasoline was forcing hard choices on them.

To be sure, the number of teenage drivers nationwide was already on a downturn over the past decade, a trend fueled by tighter state laws governing the hours when teenagers can drive, higher insurance costs and a move away from school-sponsored driver's education programs to more expensive private driving academies.

These days, teenagers who do have licenses are not only driving less, but they are also having to come up with their own gasoline money. Any long trip involving a group of teenagers is likely to involve careful negotiation over who pays. And some teenagers are realizing that gasoline prices have put their dream of owning a car out of reach.

Tim Chou, 19, an engineering student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, had to give up his gas-guzzling 1996 Nissan Quest.

"My parents decided to donate my car to charity because they didn't want to pay for the insurance and gas anymore," Chou said. "I guess I'll be doing a lot of carpooling this summer."

He was hanging out on a recent Friday night at a Starbucks with a group of his friends, and all of them said the price of gasoline, made worse by difficulty in finding summer jobs, was cramping their style.

"I used to drive around and hang out here with my friends five nights a week last summer, but I just can't afford to buy gas anymore," said Elliot Lee, 19, another engineering student. Lee said that since arriving home in East Dundee, Ill., for the summer, he had withdrawn $100 from his savings account to pay for gasoline.

Perhaps the summer's most visible change is occurring in the downtown strips of small towns where, for decades, cruising on Friday and Saturday nights has been a teenage rite of passage. It is a peculiarly American phenomenon — driving around in a big loop, listening to music, waving at one another and wasting gasoline.

"We're not cruising around anymore, with gas costing $4.50 a gallon," said Ewelina Smosna, a recent graduate of Taft High School in Chicago, as she hung out the other night at the Streets of Woodfield, an outdoor mall in Schaumburg. "We just park the car and walk around."

According to police officers in towns like Elkhart, Ind.; Grand Haven, Mich.; Modesto, Calif.; and Mount Pleasant, S.C., traffic has dropped markedly on cruise nights.

"Teen cruising is way down from 2005, when it used to be bumper-to-bumper downtown," said David Scott, a senior officer in Grand Haven, a popular resort town hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline. "Traffic downtown used to be so bad in the summer, you couldn't drive faster than 10 miles an hour. Last Friday night, I didn't even have to wait in line to get through a light."

Summer cruising appears to be ailing even in Modesto, a town immortalized in the film American Graffiti.

"I think it's a pretty good observation that there is much less cruising in town this summer, and it has a lot to do with the gas prices," said Sgt. Tom Blake of the Modesto police. "The kids are parking their cars near McHenry Avenue and congregating at the Sonic drive-in, the McDonald's and the Starbucks."

Around the nation's dinner tables, meanwhile, parents — many of them struggling to pay for their own gasoline — are having heart-to-heart talks with their teenagers.

Lorraine Demuccio, an administrative assistant from Mount Pleasant, S.C., said gas prices prompted her to urge her 18-year-old daughter, Annalisa, to turn down a summer job as a nanny.

The job "would have meant driving at least 20 minutes a day, each way, and then she'd be driving the kids to the pool and the beach," Demuccio said. "She ended up taking a job at a day care center that she can walk to."

Margie Passias, a single mother from Palatine, Ill., said she was scrambling to find extra cash to hand over with the car keys when her two teenage daughters, Athina, 18, and Paulina, 16, clamor to drive her Chevy Tracker.

"I sat the girls down on the living room couch one night and told them, 'the only solution this summer is carpooling,' " Passias recalled. "I told them not to drive on a regular basis, but I'm still giving them money for gas here and there. And with my financial situation, it is really hard."

Randy Ballschmiede, an airline mechanic from West Dundee, Ill., said that although he can empathize with the passion of his son, Kevin, for cruising with friends, he is not sure the teenager has fully come to grips with today's financial realities.

"We live a very cautious life financially, but Kevin seems to think there is no end to the money," Ballschmiede said. "He tells me about his buddy, whose parents gave him a gas credit card, and I told him, 'That is not going to happen at our house.' "

Teen drivers step on it — the brakes, that is 07/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 2:17pm]

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