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Tess Vigeland: In American pop culture turning 16 means just one thing: The license... to DRIVE. But believe it or not, and I didn't at first, that may be changing. Studies have shown that getting behind the wheel just isn't as important to today's teens. If you're in your car, you just let out a huge sigh of relief. And, If you're a parent the sigh is coming from your wallet.
Eve Troeh reports.
Eve Troeh: Meet Jamie Kitman, of Nyack, New York -- a self-confessed car freak.
Jamie Kitman: Let's go for a ride. I'm the New York bureau chief for Automobile magazine. I'm driving a phosphorescent green Ford Fiesta, a car which isn't even for sale yet, but which I'm testing.
Kitman owns more than two dozen vehicles, mostly hot rods. His son Ike is more... freaked out by cars.
Ike Kitman: I'm Ike Kitman and I'm 16. And I can't even imagine day when I'd be OK driving a sports car. I'm scared.
You could chalk up Ike's reluctance as a case of "like father, not like son." Except both think it's bigger than that. Jamie says his generation couldn't wait to drive.
Jamie Kitman: The first legal day you could be there, I was at the DMV, and that was pretty much the case for almost everybody I knew.
But Ike and his friends are in no hurry.
Ike Kitman: Only a few of my friends went to get their license when they turned 16, on that exact date. Most of 'em wait a while. And a lot of them don't end up going at all.
The Department of Transportation confirms Ike and Jamie's hunch. Teenage driving has steadily declined over the past 30 years. When the DOT last looked at new drivers in 2008, only half of all 17-year-olds had a license. In 1978, three-quarters of them did. The steepest drop happened in the 1990s -- when the most iconic image of teenage driving might have been this:
Dionne: Hello? That was a stop sign!
Cher: I totally paused!
Sound of a crash
Cher: Should I write them a note?
That's the 1995 movie "Clueless." In some ways, that was reality.
Laurette Stiles: From the mid-90s on we noticed a real problem with teen drivers.
Laurette Stiles is with State Farm Insurance. She says crash rates went way up in the 90s. Car wrecks became the leading cause of death for teenagers. Many states passed tougher laws, bigger fines and complicated rules for teen drivers. Insurers hiked their premiums. And, Stiles says, parents began to insist on newer, safer cars for teens.
Stiles: The cost of the vehicle, the cost of fuel, the cost of the insurance. You know, they're certainly more expensive today than when I was a teen, and those costs continue to go up.
A family's car insurance often doubles if they add a teen to the policy. And, Stiles has seen a big shift in who picks up that tab.
Stiles: Our research shows many teens today are not primarily responsible for the financial aspects of driving. And that was a little surprising to us. Most teens, they don't pay for the vehicle, they don't pay for their insurance, they don't pay for the gas.
So, if family finances are tight, parents are just holding off on letting the high school kid drive. But then they go off to college, still don't learn and that's creating a new issue, says Jon Linkov. He's managing editor at Consumer Reports.
Jon Linkov: It's much harder when you're in the professional world to find the free time to take all the drivers' lessons that you need to. And it's just going to introduce a new driving group in the age 20 to 25.
The Kitmans don't want this to happen to Ike. He did get his learner's permit, but he can't seem to find time between extracurriculars to get his full license. And who drives him to all those activities? Dad. Dad would like Ike to be more independent.
Ike Kitman: I did bike seven or eight miles to a friend's house a few days ago.
Jamie Kitman: That would be the second time in your entire life that you've biked anywhere.
Ike Kitman: No comment. Not true.
Ike says, actually, kids these days rely less on cars, because they can socialize and do school work online.
Ike Kitman: Your friend can just e-mail the Power Point presentation you're doing, instead of having to go pick it up and study with them you can just study over the Internet.
What about working to buy a car? Well, jobs for teens are in short supply. And Ike says working would hurt his grades.
Ike Kitman: 'Cause I know if I worked from three to seven, I would feel exhausted and overwhelmed.
On this one, his dad Jamie agrees.
Jamie Kitman: While I'm sure my sterling character owes something to a bunch of crappy jobs when I was a teenager, I'm not sure that's the best use of my kid's time.
Jamie says Ike is missing out on the basic financial education that he got by working and paying for a car. But that's because Ike is looking further down the road. Sixteen-year-olds today seem to think more about their lifelong careers than cruising on a Friday night.
I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace Money.