FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Time was, kids couldn't wait for their 16th birthday, the magic milestone when they received that coveted pass to freedom: a spanking new driver's license.
But today's teens, perhaps to the relief of more seasoned drivers, are on the road in far fewer numbers.
For many kids, driving takes a back seat to electronic communication. The cruel mathematics of owning and insuring a car also keeps many kids grounded.
"Between 2006 and 2012 there was a 10 percent decrease for teen drivers," said Courtney Heidelberg, spokeswoman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in Tallahassee, Fla.
Why kids are spurning that freewheeling rite of passage is a matter of speculation, especially since the number of Florida teens ages 15 through 19 has grown 16.6 percent from 2000 through 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
"We haven't done any studies or correlations as to what's driving those numbers," Heidelberg said. "One may presume that the economy and higher gas prices are probably having an effect."
Or ever-present, instant communication. "Using your smart phone to talk to one another may have an effect," she added.
Said Rachelle Francois, a 16-year-old Fort Lauderdale High School student: "Some people just really don't care" about driving.
At the start of 2006, there was a total of 793,020 drivers between 15 and 19 on Florida's roads, according to the highway safety department. By the start of 2012 that figure had dropped to 712,767.
In Broward County, there were 72,771 drivers between 15 and 19 in 2006. The 2012 count: 66,649. Palm Beach County saw less of a drop during the same time period: 50,982 to 47,100.
A study last year by the University of Michigan found that 46.2 percent of the nation's 16 year olds had licenses in 1983, compared to 31.1 in 2008, a drop of 15.1 percent.
"We've noticed this for a few years now," said Kyle Dailey, the curriculum specialist who oversees the driver's education program for Broward, Fla., schools. "I think technology plays a big factor in this. I can contact you 10 different ways, I don't have to drive in a car to go see you."
The Michigan study concluded that the drop in teen drivers could mean that virtual contact, via the Internet and smart phones, is trumping actual contact among teens. It also cited today's tough economy as making it difficult for a teen to own a car.
Then there are the social considerations. "Maybe it's less of a stigma to have your mom drive you," Heidelberg said.
Driver's education classes are consistently full in Palm Beach County, Fla., but Eric Stearn, who runs the district's program, said tight money can keep a student from getting a license. "In the economic times we're in, some families might not be able to afford to purchase a vehicle," he said.
Ray Evans, a veteran driving instructor at Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Fla., said kids can be priced right out of the driver's seat: It costs plenty to insure a teenager on South Florida's mean streets. "It's ridiculous for kids right now," he said, "You're talking thousands of dollars."
When kids eschew a license, Evans said, it's likely due to economics: "They're saving money. You've got high gas prices, the maintenance of the car, the insurance."
To hear the kids tell it, though, that old bugaboo school work is keeping them from the open road.
Alvin Seepaul of Sunrisem, Fla., turns 16 next month but doesn't anticipate obtaining a license soon. "I want to get it, but I delayed," he said. "Just all the pressure in high school, I really haven't had time."
Rosey Rosemond, a senior at Fort Lauderdale High School, also said the academic treadmill prevented her from getting her license until she turned 17, her current age. "I didn't have the time," she said. "I was trying to balance everything."
Rosemond wasn't alone among kids who deferred driving. "A majority of my friends who are seniors got their permits this year," she said. "They didn't have the time."
Fellow student Francois, however, is eager to obtain her ticket to ride. "It'll give me a sense of more freedom and independence," she said.
And there's another, more self-respecting, benefit from driving: No more trips with mom.
"It was embarrassing," Rosemond said. "I wouldn't sit in the front seat."
(c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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