The Beach Boys sang about a 16-year-old girl who had “Fun, Fun, Fun” until her daddy took her T-Bird away. Danny Zuko and his best friend, Kenickie, along with the rest of the T-Birds turned a jalopy into Greased Lightning, saved the day and won the hearts of all the Pink Ladies, and countless TV teens couldn’t wait to get their driver’s license.
But a new study from AAA suggests American teens’ love affair with the automobile may be fading.
Most of the teens who Jamison Gray, Austin Mack and Marc Michaelson know drive cars owned by their parents that run on fuel paid for by their parents as well.
“I think I’ve fueled up twice with my own money, maybe three times,” Mack said.
“But when you get tickets, you pay for them yourself,” his mother, Cherie Mack, was quick to add.
The students involved in athletics are more likely to have more help from their parents because the time and energy needed to be involved in a sport doesn’t allow most teens to have jobs, incoming Dickinson High School sophomore Lauren Nicole DeSpain said.
“For the most part, Nikki has two jobs, she saves quite a bit of her own money, she makes her own car payments,” said Elizabeth Vreswyk, DeSpain’s mother.
As AAA studied the effects of graduated licensure programs, the agency found that nearly half of the 18-year-olds surveyed didn’t have a driver’s license. Nearly one-third of all survey participants, ages 18 to 20, were not licensed.
The lack of an automobile and other transportation options were the main reason Americans in their late teens forgo the open road, rather than the steps it takes to get a license, the study found.
When she was in high school, Cherie Mack opted not to have a car after seeing her older brother give up baseball to purchase and care for his pickup.
“When I saw that — we’re only nine months apart — I think I was like, ‘No way,’ ” she said. “If I could ride with him, and his car’s cooler than anything I would ever buy.”
She grew up 14 miles from her hometown of Kalispell, Mont., and got rides from friends or her brother, and even biked into town on occasion.
“Sometimes it was long nights waiting in town for my parents to get off of work,” Cherie Mack said. “I would wait for my dad at the warehouse. I wasn’t like I got to go home right after school.”
Growing up in the Denver suburb of Arvada, Colo., Vreswyk had a much different driving experience than her daugher, DeSpain.
Page 2 of 3 - “My first car was a 1968 Delta 88 that I bought for $200,” Vreswyk said. “It was a land shark. One of these heavy, heavy gas guzzlers, didn’t have a whole lot of work. What I learned is it went really, really fast.”
Things are more spread out in Denver, and if Vreswyk didn’t have money for gas, she would walk or take her bike.
In North Dakota, especially the western half, there are few options other than a personal automobile to freely and safely travel throughout the prairies and Badlands.
Even so, teen drivership across the state has slowly declined over the past few years. According to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, there were 6,065 16-year-old drivers in North Dakota in 2005. Last year there were 5,355. In that time the state’s population has increased.
North Dakota added more than 30,000 people between the 2000 census and the 2010 census, increasing its population to 672,591, and 2012 estimates have the state pushing 700,000.
Now, 15- to 19-year-olds make up about 7 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hondas are the trendy vehicle at Dickinson High School, but some pickups are mixed in there. Austin Mack and Michaelson drive Toyotas, unless Mack, who is heading off to North Dakota State University in Fargo this week, was driving to and from Bismarck for soccer practice. Then he drove the diesel-powered Volkswagen his parents purchased with the long commute in mind.
“We sometimes get 42, 43 miles per gallon,” Cherie Mack said.
While many of the students want small, fast cars, those with pickups are the ones consistently driving to school, DeSpain said.
“A lot of the time, kids want to carpool to school during the winter,” DeSpain said. “I’m going to want to do that because I’m scared of ice — I have the worst luck with ice.”
Unless they’re taking a trip out of town, Gray, Mack and Michaelson said they don’t worry about the cost of driving their cars.
Gray, who begins his freshman year at University of Mary in Bismarck soon, sometimes cruises Villard Street in his black Subaru Legacy.
“I do once in awhile,” said Michaelson, who starts his sophomore year at DHS this week. “But when I first got my license, I never wanted to because I was worried I was going to get it wrecked or something. I wasn’t as comfortable with driving. Now I am a lot more.”
During the summer, DeSpain said driving around is the only thing to do for entertainment.
“Most of the time, it’s driving around,” DeSpain said. “And usually, it’s the kid with the coolest car.”
Page 3 of 3 - There are more regulations now then when their parents started driving, Mack said.
“My mom doesn’t always wear her seatbelt,” Gray said. “I do, always.”
Vreswyk and DeSpain are total opposites when it comes to driving.
“She is everything by the book and I’m, ‘Let’s just get it done,’ ” Vreswyk said.
Because there’s more regulation than when she was growing up, Vreswyk feels that her daughter’s generation is safer and more responsible.
“The level of responsibility that the kids take today is completely different than they would take back in my day,” Vreswyk said. “I think a lot of that is because of the laws, and I think for the most part the kids are a lot more responsible.”
While driving 200 miles round-trip four to five times each week, Mack was most worried about being tired behind the wheel.
“The way home after practice is really when it got hard and long,” he said.
Teens tend to driver safer when alone, but friends can put a little pressure to drive faster or cause distractions, DeSpain said.
“They might tell me to go faster, but that’s because I’m 10 miles under the speed limit,” Mack said. “I’m kind of a slow driver.”
Because her car has turbo, DeSpain has had a few of her friends want to experience the sudden acceleration.
“It can go from 25 up to 45 to 50 in like, two seconds if I just press really hard on the gas — it’s really crazy,” DeSpain said. “I guess it depends on the influence you have on your friends.”
Michaelson, whose father teaches driver’s education, drives with caution when it comes to speeding as well.
“I think kids are a lot more responsible today than they were back in my day,” Vreswyk said. “Back in my day, we were all partying a lot harder than the kids party now.”