The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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April 12, 2012

Driving distraction? Internet may reduce kids’ desire to get a license

JOPLIN, Mo. — Is driving going the way of bell bottoms and talking on the phone for teens? A recent study suggests so.

The share of 16- to 39-year-olds with driver’s licenses declined significantly from 1983 to 2008. The greatest decreases are among drivers in their late teens and early 20s, according to a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

There are likely several factors behind the trend, said Michael Sivak, co-author of the study, including a difficult job market for youths, which makes it tough to buy and maintain a car. But the most interesting excuse is Internet usage -- Sivak said that increased electronic communication reduces the need for face-to-face visits.

Sivak said countries where more people use the Internet see similar proportions of people not getting licenses, including countries such as Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Germany.

If the trend seems outlandish, don’t tell carmakers. The industry has been targeting growth markets in Asia, not the U.S. and Europe.

“For generations, the automobile has typified freedom,” said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “At 16, many people wanted to get their driver’s license because that was the way people connected with their friends. (Now) we’re seeing people connect through their iPhones. That’s their primary motivation. They want to be in touch with their friends, so they are less focused on buying a vehicle.”

Training teens

While Joplin has a transportation system, it is not as big or open as major metropolitan systems. The region’s rural composition leads local teens to continue to pursue licenses to get around.

That means parents have to be ready to show their children the rules of the road, which is a crucial job, said John Hotz, assistant director of public information for the Missouri Highway Patrol.

The most important thing: Prepare to practice as much as possible, he said.

“When it comes to kids, we’ll spend thousands of hours practicing sports, but we’ll send kids out on the roads with 10 or 20 hours of practice driving,” Hotz said. “Driving is the thing more likely to kill young people, so they need some training to do one of the most dangerous things they will ever do.”

The biggest thing parents need to do is relax, Hotz said. Driving is stressful enough, without the other things that will distract teens. That includes ongoing arguments, Hotz said.

“It’s really important to have, as much as possible, a stress-free environment,” Hotz said. “If a parent and kid are getting into it on other issues, it carries over.”

The best way to start is with the basics: making seat and mirror adjustments before driving, learning the controls and performing maneuvers such as parking, stopping and starting.

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