Is your teen always on Facebook or Xbox LIVE? Constantly texting? You just might be thankful when his or her 16th birthday rolls around.
Teenagers no longer look to the family car as a rite of passage and a ticket to freedom, thanks in part to social media. As a result, fewer teens are dying on the roads -- although the reduction isn't as great as it could be -- and parents are paying less for car insurance than they otherwise might. (See "A parent's guide to insuring a teen driver.")
A University of Michigan study found that the percentage of 16-year-olds who have a driver's license has dropped from 46 percent in 1983 to 31 percent in 2008. The drop for 17- and 18-year-olds was just as dramatic. Michael Sivak, the study's lead author, suggests that social contact through electronic devices reduces the need for actual contact, making a license less important.
While social networks certainly have played a role in delayed licensure, so have a multitude of other factors such as economics and graduated licensing laws.
Fewer teen drivers, safer roads?
All 50 states now have a graduated driver licensing (GDL) program in place, and those programs are working, at least for younger drivers. Drivers must pass through a supervised learners stage and a restricted-privilege intermediate stage before full licensure.
A recent nationwide study found that GDL programs that restrict nighttime driving and teen passengers lowered fatal crash risk by 26 percent for 16-year-olds. (See the GDL laws for your state.) While graduated licensing has lowered the death toll for 16-year-olds, the study found that in many cases the accidents simply happen two years later, as 18-year-olds are granted unrestricted licenses.
The study found that since the first GDL programs were put in place in the 1990s there have been 1,348 fewer fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers. However, during the same period, the number of fatal crashes involving 18-year-olds jumped by 1,086.
Scott Masten, the lead author of the fatalities study[c1] and a research manager at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, postulates that many teens are simply waiting until age 18 to get their license so they don't have to deal with the requirements of the GDL program.
That can mean new drivers with almost no experience are given an unrestricted license after passing the written and practical test. This can be a problem, Masten says, "because new drivers make more mistakes, just like learners of any complex psychomotor task, [and] these mistakes lead to more crashes."
Why teen drivers are waiting
In most cases, there is a not just a single reason teens are waiting longer to drive but a collection of reasons, both personal and financial.
For starters, learning is expensive. Driver training can run anywhere from $50 to more than $500, but that is just the start. Adding a teen driver to your policy can easily double car insurance rates. (See "What a teen driver does to your insurance rates.")
Vickie Smith, an Ashton, Idaho, mother of eight, says her insurance premium goes up by $100 a month when one of her children is on the policy. Her solution: Only one kid can be on the policy at a time, and they have to pay their share of the cost increase.
Other parents are encouraging their teen drivers to wait. While financial considerations can be a factor, maturity and safety are often the primary concerns. Most experts agree that there is a big difference in maturity between a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old.
"Insurance rates for an 18-year-old newly licensed driver will be lower than those of a 16-year-old," says Mike Petrarca, spokesperson for Amica Insurance. "Maturity levels make a difference in crash rates. Over the past decade, insurers have moved to yearly rating factors instead of grouping teens together in one category."
The social network
The ability to connect with friends via social networks has lessened the urgency of learning to drive.
Andrew Schrage, editor of Money Crashers personal finance blog, says "social media and the Internet definitely played a role in my case. Being unable to drive was not much of an inconvenience because I could connect with my friends via the Internet. "
Schrage chose to wait until he was 18 before getting licensed.
"The harsh restrictions for under-18 drivers definitely factored into my decision," he says. "It almost seemed contradictory to put in so much hard work before 18 for what amounts to limited driving privileges."
With a continuous connection to Facebook and parents and friends willing to drive teens around, the GDL requirements seem a hassle that is not worth the effort, Schrage says.
An Allstate Foundation survey found that some teens wait because they're just too busy. In a hyper-scheduled world of after-school jobs, extracurricular activities, sports and test preparation, state requirements for as much as 60 hours of supervised driving move a license down the priority list.
What's a parent to do?
Even if your teen waits until age 18 to drive, the graduated process used for younger drivers is still widely seen as the safest option to putting them on the road.
Experts agree that the best way to keep your teens safe is to make sure they have plenty of practice before they get behind the wheel by themselves. "The single biggest factor in reducing teen crash rates is allowing them to get experience driving, preferably under the safest conditions possible," Masten says. "Practicing on a learner's permit with an adult is very safe and should be strongly encouraged."
That means following a GDL model of limiting passengers and nighttime driving, regardless of when a teen learns to drive. New Jersey requires all new drivers under 21 to follow the GDL restrictions, and it has seen significant reductions in the crash rates for 17- and 18-year-olds. (Other countries have even more stringent rules.)
Even if your teen has no interest in driving, he must be listed on your car insurance policy if he has a permit or license.
Lisa Melton, spokeswoman at Amica, advises, "It is always best to list any teen who has a license or permit on your policy. This ensures coverage if they are in an accident."
You can exclude them specifically as a driver if you need to, but liability will fall to you should they get in an accident.