FORT LAUDERDALE — Once a symbol of independence, today fewer teens are racing to get their driver's license when they turn 16. • That's mixed news for their parents, who may bemoan a few more years of chauffeur duty but who also delay insurance sticker shock. And it may be good news for the rest of us. Experts say the streets should be safer overall because fewer teens on the road mean fewer accidents.
"This is huge because the biggest killer of our young people is car crashes," said Glen Victor, spokesman for the Florida Safety Council.
Only 30.7 percent of 16-year-olds nationwide got their driver's licenses in 2008, compared with 44.7 percent in 1988, according to federal data released earlier this year. Florida experienced a drop from 58 percent to 55 percent over the past three years. And while Broward and Palm Beach counties don't keep comparable statistics, driving instructors in the area say they've noticed a similar downward trend.
"A lot of teens are very scared to drive," said Craig Emerson, owner of Abbott's Florida Driving School, which offers lessons in Palm Beach and Broward counties. "We haven't seen a complete dropoff but more are waiting."
The trend is the same among boys and girls.
There are several reasons for this, experts say.
Safety is frequently cited as a major concern. According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Transportation report, teenagers have the highest fatal crash rate of any age group, and crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds.
Other reasons: Between texting and Facebook, teens find it easier to stay in touch without face-to-face contact. A Kaiser Family Foundation study published in January found that total media use among 8- to 18-year-olds increased from six hours, 21 minutes daily in 2004 to seven hours, 38 minutes in 2009.
In addition, "teens are involved in so many electives and out-of-school activities that for some of them driving is not the first thing on their priority list," said Kyle Dailey, core curriculum specialist at Broward Schools.
And with the economic downturn, fewer kids have access to cars at home, which is quelling their thirst for a license.
Then there are the costs associated with driving. Insurance for teens is higher than for any other age group, in part because they have the greatest number of accidents, said Loretta Worters, with the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.
According to Carinsurance.com, annual premiums average about $2,200.
"When the economy is in the tank, driving among teens will go down because people have less money to spend on gas and insurance," said Rob Foss, director of the Center for Study of Young Drivers, in Chapel Hill, N.C.