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Teens delay driving – in favor of virtual friendships

By Sarah Klein

When I was growing up, 16 was always that magical age – one that heralded a little maturity and responsibility and a whole lot of independence and freedom. Being able to drive meant no more calling mom for a ride home, and being able to sing along to the radio at the top of my lungs. I sat through the hours of Driver's Ed classes itching to get out on the road. I couldn't wait to get my driver's license.

But it appears it's a different story for today's teens. In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration released 2008 data that showed only 30.7 percent of U.S. teens got their licenses at age 16. Twenty years before, that number was almost 45 percent.

The Washington Post reports on a few of the reasons for the fall-off, among them growing responsibilities like paying for insurance and skyrocketing gas prices, and simply being used to riding along with mom and dad. Plus, many teens today are so overwhelmed by homework, endless hours of extracurricular activities and part-time jobs, that finding the time for Driver's Ed may be more difficult than ever.

Plus, many states have raised the driving age, or restricted when teens can drive and who they can have in the car. Parents may also be making their own personal restrictions until they feel their teens are responsible enough to drive safely.

"Driving is real important to a lot of the kids in the culture, but it is not the central focus like it was 25 years ago," Tom Pecoraro, the owner of I Drive Smart, a driver education program in the Washington, D.C. area, told the Post. "They have so many other things to do now."

One of the more interesting factors delaying teen driving might be the changing shape of the average teenager's social life. Today, teens need look no further than Facebook or other social networking sites to connect with their friends. They can also chat and play video games live. And they constantly text, sending as many as 10 messages an hour. There is simply less need, maybe less desire, to be able to grab the keys and go.

Michelle Wei told the Post she got her license as a senior in high school because her digital social life made it easy not to drive.  "If I couldn't get a ride to see my friend who lives a town over," the 19-year-old said, "I could talk on IM or Skype."

Research has shown that these online relationships can lead to higher quality friendships, less stress, and greater happiness, so it isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, it's important to find a balance; there's still something to be said for good old face-to-face friendships, whether or not you have to drive to find them.

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