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On getting a license, many teens seem stuck in neutral

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Getting drivers test done
Talia Edelheit, 16, tried to calm herself before taking a driver's license road test at at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety location in Arden Hills, Minn., in 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Not too many years ago, a milestone of almost every teenager's life was the acquisition of a driver's license. Fifteen-year-olds looked forward to their next birthday with mounting excitement and anxiety, and they practiced parallel parking in hopes of acing their driver's test. 

Nowadays, in increasing numbers, they don't bother.

As recently as 1983, about 3 in 4 people between the ages of 16 and 19 and a driver's license. Now that percentage has fallen to about half. While driving has declined across the population, the drop is most pronounced among teens.

What's going on?

A study last summer by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute found that young nondrivers could offer a variety of reasons for their lack of urgency about getting a license. But the one they cited most frequently was that they were too busy.

"What," wrote Jim Motavalli on the Car Talk blog, "not enough time to get the keys to the kingdom, a card that used to be a rite of passage for all 16-year-olds? I would have walked through hot coals."

Other factors listed in the study as primary reasons for not driving included the expense of operating a car, the availability of friends with cars, a preference for biking or walking, and the availability of public transportation. One in five respondents intended to never get a license; more than two-thirds said they expected to get one within five years.

The Daily Circuit explores the issue with two close observers of environmental and transportation issues.