Clovis News

More Calif. teens staying in the passenger's seat

Angelina Bonilla graduated from Central High School last month and turns 18 next week. But she still relies on Mom and Dad for a ride to the mall or the movies.

Angelina, who was eligible for a license two years ago, is among a growing number of teens who are in no hurry to get behind the wheel. Many of Angelina's friends aren't driving yet either -- including her 19-year-old boyfriend, Robert Pereida.

Statistics show that a decline in teen drivers that began more than a decade ago is no passing fad. The percentage of California residents getting licenses at age 16 and 17 has dropped from 31% in 1996 to 19% last year.

Experts cite a number of reasons: the cost of an additional car -- plus insurance and gas -- in a shaky economy, for one. And new license restrictions for those younger than 18 have taken some of the fun out of driving.

But some cite a less obvious factor as key to the trend: parents. Accustomed to driving their children even short distances since the 1990s, when fear of crime reshaped many family routines, many continue to chauffeur their teens out of habit.

"I think a large part of it is safety," said Michael Botwin, chairman of the psychology department at California State University, Fresno. And "I think parents are simply far more doting on this generation" of teens.

Botwin cited the example of his own 18-year-old son: "My wife looked at me recently and said, 'Are you going to drive him around until he's 25?' "

Botwin's son finally got his license three weeks ago and is looking for his first job, he said. But when parents don't push teens to drive, get jobs and do for themselves, adolescence is prolonged, he said.

Angelina, who lives in Fresno, acknowledges that most teens know their parents will drive them where they want to go, so being unlicensed is not such a big deal: "I think a lot are just lazy."

That's not good for Patrick McComb's business. McComb, who founded Drive America driving and traffic school 22 years ago in Fresno, said his business has declined as much as 40% in the past three years, and the students he sees are older than in years past.

He blames several factors, including the cost of cars, driving lessons and insurance.

Drivers education classes that were routinely offered in high schools for free have largely disappeared because of budget cuts. Teens take the classes in order to qualify for a learner's permit at age 151/2, allowing them to drive with a licensed adult in preparation for getting licensed at 16. But the classes now are offered mostly by companies that charge more than $200.

In addition, McComb said, many teens already are overbooked with after-school sports and extracurricular activities and lack the time to learn how to drive.

But McComb also agreed that teens aren't so keen to get their own driver's license because their parents have accepted the role of chauffeur. "These kids can't even walk home from school," he said.

In California, the percentage of 16-year-olds with drivers licenses has declined gradually during the past decade, said Armando Botello, a spokesman for the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

From 1998 to 2009, the number of licensed 16-year-olds dropped 38% -- from 112,332 to 69,899 -- while the population of teens that age grew nearly 26%.

The decline intensified in the past four years -- about the time the state imposed more restrictions on teen drivers, Botello said.

California began a graduated license program in 1998 that restricted, among other things, drivers younger than 18 from being on the road between midnight and 5 a.m. for the first year of their license. Young drivers also could not carry passengers younger than 20 for the first six months. In 2006, the rules became even more strict when the nighttime driving curfew was expanded to 11 p.m. and the young passenger restriction also was increased to a full year.

"With all the restrictions, it doesn't sound like fun, because teenagers love driving with their friends," said Angelina.

Many teens simply wait until they are 18 to get their licenses because the restrictions don't apply and -- although they still must pass DMV written and driving tests -- they aren't required to take a driver's education course.

Vanessa Duran of Clovis waited until she turned 18 in February to get her license, because she was not in a big rush. "Driving never really interested me," she said. "I always had my parents driving me around."

And, Vanessa said, she was a little afraid to get behind the wheel. She said she heard a lot about drunken drivers, reckless drivers and road rage.

"My parents wanted me to drive more than I wanted to drive," she said, adding that she could have helped her family by carting around her younger siblings.

Kathy Bonilla, Angelina's mom, has been planning to give her daughter the car she now drives. But for now, she is resigned to playing taxi for Angelina and her boyfriend.

She said several teens her daughter's age in the neighborhood aren't yet driving.

It's all very strange to Bonilla, who said she got her license within days of turning 16 -- as did most of her friends.

Bonilla is undecided on whether her daughter is ready to drive. Angelina completed a driver's education course and later took the written driving test at DMV. But she didn't pass, and that hurt her confidence, Bonilla said.

"If she is not ready, I don't want to push it," Bonilla said.

She also said driving her daughter everywhere allows her to keep tabs on where Angelina is hanging out.

But in recent months, Angelina has been thinking more and more about getting her license. She said it bothers her that her younger friends are driving. And she said it would be easier to find a job and get around in college.

"I'm getting tired of my parents driving me everywhere, and I think they are getting tired of it," she said.