Growing up is hard

Oct. 2, 2023
So is learning to drive safely, and deciding who to blame if you don’t

By David Matthews, Contributing Author

Today’s teenagers think getting a driver's license is about as cool as skinny jeans and side parts. (Meaning it’s uncool.)

According to the Federal Highway Administration, only a quarter of 16-year-olds in the U.S. currently have a driver's license, which is about half as many as teenagers in the mid-‘90s.

The reasons why are as complicated as teenagers themselves. Car prices have soared over the past three years. Inflation increased the price of gas and insurance. Ride-hailing and home delivery services have made cars feel less essential. Many young people would rather walk or bike than pollute their planet.

Graduated licensing has also had a large impact. In many states, it can take several months or even years for teenagers to gain full driving privileges.

Laura Adams, a senior driving analyst for Aceable, said that her research found that stress is also a significant factor.

"Nine out of 10 parents actually said teens were postponing getting their license because they felt anxious about driving,” Adams told

Teens also have less motivation to drive to see their friends, thanks to social media.

According to a survey by Common Sense Media,61% of teens between 13 and 17 said they actually prefer to text or use social mediainstead of talking in-person.

“Their thumbs have become much more mobile than their legs,” said Ming Zhang, a professor of regional planning at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Washington Post.

Driven to distraction

Teens are right to be nervous about driving on today’s roads where motorists are increasingly distracted.

Despite all the education campaigns and increased fines over the past few years, a report from Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT) found that distracted driving increased by 20% from 2020 to 2022.

As a result, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates that distracted driving is now responsible for nine deaths every day in the U.S.

The CMT report found that drivers interacted with their phones on nearly 58% of trips last year and spend an average of 98 seconds on their phone per hour of driving.

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that sending or receiving a single text message takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, which is the equivalent to traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph blindfolded.

Safety laws have been effective in curbing distracted driving, but only if people know about them. In states with a handheld ban, the CMT report found that 40% of drivers weren’t aware of the ban or didn’t understand what it meant.

Runs in the family

If your teen is a distracted driver, you might be the reason why.

UK-based company Scrap Car Comparison examined the records of “bad drivers” (those who have been pulled over or ticketed in the past 10 years) and “good drivers” (those with clean records) and then compared them with their parents' records.

The study found that 66% of “bad drivers” were raised by parents who were also bad drivers. Among this second generation of law breakers, 45% had been pulled over by the police, and 37% had received a ticket.

By comparison, only 14% of motorists raised by “good drivers” had been pulled over, with just 12% receiving a ticket.

So is bad driving hereditary? Researchers believe it is, and the cause is more than just bad advice during driving lessons. “Simply being a passenger in our parents’ vehicles from a young age can also lead to us subconsciously absorbing things from being in that environment,” the study noted.

Drivers agree that their parents are at fault for their bad driving habits, with speeding being the most common. Around 55% of drivers said their parents are the reason for their fast driving, while almost 49% attributed their road rage to their parents. Poor spatial awareness was cited by 24% of respondents, and 21% blamed their parents for their bad parking skills.

Unfortunately for teens, “my dad did it” is still not a valid legal defense in traffic court. R&B

About the Author

David Matthews

David Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news for his Roads Report column since 2000. The stories are all true.

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