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Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Published August 13 2012

Drive time: Some teens delay rite of passage

ATLANTA — It used to be teens couldn’t wait to get their driver’s license. The rite of passage marked a new level of independence. It signaled new- found freedom and a hallmark on the road to adulthood.

That’s still true, but more teens may be waiting long past their 16th birthday to get the once-coveted driver’s license.

Brandon Smith of Dunwoody, Ga., waited. So did Anthony Acker and Zachary Neal, both of Stone Mountain, Ga. When they signed up for a class this summer at Taggart’s Driving School, Smith was 17, Neal was 18, and Acker was 19.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, a decade ago, half of the 16-year-olds in the country got their license. Today only a third get them, it says.

Neal will be the last among his friends to get a driver’s license.

Even though he had to endure much teasing from his friends, he said it was his decision to wait before he “took the big plunge.” “Driving is one of those big responsibilities that you have to be ready for,” Neal said.

And when he decided to take the driving class, his friends teased him even more.

“Dude, you’re 18, you don’t have to take the class,” he said they told him. “But I needed to so I could learn what to do and what not to do.” He’s looking forward to driving himself to Georgia Perimeter College this fall.

“I cannot wait,” Neal said. “It’s going to be awesome.” Under state law, once teens turn 17, they no longer are required to take a driving course to get a license and are under no restrictions stipulating who can ride with them while they’re driving. But driver’s education may entitle parents to a $150 tax credit and a reduction in insurance costs.

For those waiting, the reasons vary.

“Many parents feel that 16-year-olds are still too immature to operate a motor vehicle,” said Ashley Nalley, vice president of Taggart’s Driving School. Finding the time to master the skill is also a challenge, she said. “Between high school sports teams, traveling teams, school plays and other activities, teenagers simply cannot find the time to schedule their in-car driving lessons, much less 30 hours in the classroom.” Rob Foss, director for the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, disagrees with the Federal Highway Administration’s findings but said teens are getting licensed to drive unsupervised at a slightly older age. “There’s no question about that,” he said.

But he said it has more to do with changes in motor vehicle laws than anything else.

Teens can’t get a license to drive without an adult in the car as early as they did 20 years ago. Now they are required to have at least six months of supervised driving before they can get a license to drive on their own.

No longer wanting to depend on his parents, Smith decided his time had finally come.

“I will be a senior next year,” he said. “I don’t want to have to worry about my parents’ schedule.”