Taking the wheel - Teens are waiting later than age 16 to get their licenses. PHS Seniors Abbie Sawyer (driver’s seat); and passengers Hanna Braswell, Savannah Laney, and Sadie Cornett now have their licenses but many teens are postponing the rite of passage until later in high school or beyond.
By Suzy Price
The number of teenagers with their driver’s license has declined as much as 20 percent since 1983, according to a study done by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
This national decline is evident locally. The number of parking permits sold to student drivers at Pickens High School has fallen drastically since the 2000s. In 2014, PHS lost their driver’s education program, a class that had allowed students to take driving training during school hours.
According to PHS teacher Ben Sparks, the program was given up because of the cost. Following the loss of the program the school saw a decline in parking permit sales, a total drop of 75-100 in just one year. Considering the relatively stable enrollment, this shows that fewer teens are driving to school.
The South Cherokee/Jasper Driving School began offering driver’s education in 2014, filling in with private classes when the school system dropped in-school training. Representatives there say they did not see a notable increase in attendance at all, as most of their students still come from Cherokee County.
Sparks believes a major factor in the decrease was the creation of Joshua’s Law in 2008. The PHS teacher was a student at Sequoyah High School that year, and saw changes happening almost immediately among fellow students.
More and more students had to wait to complete the required programs, and it was taking months longer for them to get their licenses, he said.
The law was a result of a fatal accident in 2003 that is said to have been preventable. Joshua Brown was driving home when he hit a puddle and hydroplaned, causing him to crash into a tree. His injuries were life-threatening and he died six days later. Joshua’s parents believed if he had taken more driver’s education, he would have known how to handle driving in bad weather, and he wouldn’t have hydroplaned. Joshua’s Law required all 16-year old students to take an approved driver’s ed course with at least 30 hours of classroom time and six hours of instructed driving time.
Sparks believes that because of the cost of driver’s ed, typically around $400 or more for the week-long program, many students weren’t able to get their licenses on time anymore. In 2008, PHS sold 375-400 parking permits, and the year after, they sold 250-275. This means that almost 100 students decided to wait longer to get their license or for other reasons didn’t want to drive to school.
This decision is unfathomable to many of their parents who when they were teenagers were eager to get behind the wheel as soon as possible.
However, the decline isn’t just due to financial reasons or the additional driver’s education coursework. Many students are simply choosing to wait, whether due to a fear of driving or just a lack of need.
Ella Smith, an 18-year old PHS student, says she would rather not risk her life “at the hands of inexperienced drivers.” Another student, Sadie Cornett, is 17 and already has her license, but she thinks people are waiting because “they don’t have a need to get their license. We either rely on older friends or our parents to take us places.”
According to University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s online survey of young people without a driver's license, 57 percent say they’re too busy, 30 percent say owning a car is too expensive, and 40 percent have friends to drive them. Many also blame the internet, claiming that social media has reduced the need to visit friends in person. PHS teacher Steven Wilkie argues that “electronics have replaced some of the needs that driving used to provide.”
Students like Abbie Sawyer, who didn’t get her license until 17, believe that waiting until you’re older is “an advantageous move, in that the maturity levels of older students are naturally higher, thus leading to more responsible drivers.”
It isn’t all that bad having fewer young drivers, though; according to the NHTSA, the number of reported fatalities caused by young drivers has been steadily declining along with the number of teens driving. This especially correlates with Joshua’s Law, showing a whopping 17-percent decrease in driving fatalities from the years 2007 to 2008, when the law was implemented.