In Nebraska and across the country, more teenagers are waiting a few years to get their driver’s license. Teens have a few different reasons for delaying driving. Some of it has to do with money, and some of it has to do with safety.
Looking out a second floor window, Kurt Banzhaf directs 12 cars driving around what looks like a really weird parking lot. The cars take turns parallel parking, doing three-point turns, and stopping at a four-way intersection. This is the driving range at the Nebraska Safety Center in Kearney. It lets driver’s education students practice driving without being in traffic. Each student driver is in a separate car with a CB radio – like truck drivers use – to hear Banzhaf’s instructions.
Most of the students here are about 15 years old. That’s the earliest you can get your learner’s permit in Nebraska. Claire Cammack is an exception. She’s 18. She got her learner’s permit two weeks ago, right before class started. She says one reason it’s taken her so long to start driving is money. “I have to pay for half the driver’s ed," Cammack said. "And I didn’t have a job and I’ve been having to focus on school, and I still have to pay my mom back.”
Cammack is part of a national trend. In 2012, the AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety surveyed a thousand 18 to 20-year-olds and found less than half got their license in the first year they were legally allowed. Midwestern teens were more likely to get their license sooner compared to the rest of the country, but Nebraska teens are starting to catch up.
Brandon Benitz, Transportation Safety Manager at the Safety Center, says Cammack isn’t the only 18-year-old he’s seen come through driver’s ed. “Within the last 13 months, I’ve probably talked to six or seven students that were older than 16,” Benitz said.
In 2003, 53.1% of learner's permit holders were 15 years old, 29.2% were 16, 11.7% were 17, and 5.9% were 18. (Data courtesy Nebraska Office of Highway Safety)
In 2013, 47.2% of permit holders were 15, 31.2% were 16, 13.7% were 17, and 7.9% were 18. (Data courtesy Nebraska Office of Highway Safety)
A Nebraska trend
The DMV doesn’t keep track of first-time license holders. But learner’s permits are one way to estimate first-time drivers since getting a permit means you’ve never had a license before. According to the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, more than half of all permit holders in 2003 were 15 years old. A decade later, that number has dropped by six percent, while the number of 16 to 18-year-olds with permits has increased slightly.
Like Cammack, most teens in the AAA report said they waited to get their license because of money. Driving is expensive. Besides driver’s ed, there’s gas, car insurance, and the car itself to pay for. Nebraska’s licensing laws don’t require driver’s ed, but Cammack wants to take it because she’s not a super confident driver yet.
“I actually drove here. My mom was in the car," Cammack said. "There was a turn I was making and it was a little bit tighter than I thought, and so she had to grab the wheel and turn it herself. And I was like, 'Okay, you take over!'”
The teenage brain
After money, fear was the most common reason teens gave for why they wait to drive.
"I’ve known a 13-year-old girl whose mom was driving and a semi hit them. An 18-year-old girl who was texting and driving and died by hitting a sign. I’m afraid that I’ll make a mistake or someone else will make a mistake,” 17-year-old Emma Lyness said. She doesn’t have her license yet either.
Lyness’ worries about getting into an accident aren’t totally unfounded. Teens make up six percent of drivers in Nebraska, but they account for 22 percent of all reported crashes.
Teens have multiple factors working against them as drivers. One is experience. As new drivers, they have to learn as they go, which can be kind of scary. Another is their brain’s ability to judge a risky situation is still developing.
“Their ability to choose right and wrong sometimes isn’t always there," said Jeanne Bietz, grant coordinator for the injury prevention program in the Department of Health and Human Services. "All of us were teens at one point in time, if you can think back to how you behaved. That’s just something we can’t change in teens because everybody’s brains develop in a certain pattern."
Nebraska is trying a few different things to teach teens safer driving habits. In 1998, the state passed graduated driver licensing laws so teens under 18 can only drive during the day and without friends in the car to distract them. This past fall, Nebraska joined Texas, California, and Georgia in participating in a peer education program called Teens in the Driver’s Seat. Instead of adults teaching safety classes, Bietz says high school students teach their friends.
“Teens listen to other teens," Bietz said. "It’s actually using peer pressure in a positive way because when everybody else is doing something then you typically join in with your peers to do the same behavior.”
Teen drivers are overrepresented in car crashes in Nebraska. Full report here. (Chart courtesy Nebraska Office of Highway Safety)
Lyness remembers when she turned 15 and didn’t get her permit. Her parents were fine with her waiting to start driving. But her friends?
“My friends are the ones that push me more, actually, just because they probably get tired of giving me rides,” Lyness said.
Lyness finally got her learner’s permit last year after one of her friends drove her to the DMV and made her take the test. But Lyness still isn’t in a hurry to get her license, despite her friend’s pushing. She thinks she’ll get it sometime this summer before school starts. She feels more ready now than she did when she was 15.
“I was like barely a teenager, you know? I’m definitely a different and more mature person than I was,” Lyness said.
Feeling comfortable, no matter what age you are, is key for new drivers. Janessa Whitaker is a driving instructor at the Nebraska Safety Center. She started driving as soon as she was legally allowed to at 15. But her sister was a different story.
“When I took driver’s ed I took it with my 18-year-old sister," Whitaker said. "She wasn’t a very confident driver yet and so she hadn’t gotten her license yet. And that was very wise on her part ‘cause you don’t want to just because you turn 16 go get your license, ‘cause you’re not the only person you affect when you’re on the road.”
More teens are waiting until they decide they’re ready to get behind the wheel – to keep themselves, and other drivers, safe.