Kiwi teens turn off driving

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 02/03/2014
Teen Jay Lichter
MICHAEL BRADLEY/Fairfax NZ
NO THANKS: Jay Lichter, 17, finds the idea of driving intimidating.

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Growing numbers of of teens are refusing to get behind the wheel, because they think cars cost too much, they're worried they might drive into someone, or they just can't be bothered sitting their licence.

A worldwide trend known as "driving ambivalence" has hit young people in New Zealand. Figures show the number of teens getting their licences has dropped drastically in the past five years.

Experts cite a variety of reasons for the decline, from the expense of maintaining a vehicle to the dangers of driving.

They also say smartphones and social media have rendered the need for teens to get behind the wheel less important.

"I think more people should put in a bit more consideration into driving . . . it's a tonne of metal going at 100km per hour, and it's intimidating," non-driver Jay Lichter, 17, told the Sunday Star-Times.

Both rural and urban New Zealand are affected by the trend, New Zealand Transport Agency statistics show. Of the cities, Wellington shows the biggest decline, with the number of licensed drivers aged 16 to 19 falling by as much as 75 per cent.

Dunedin and New Plymouth both had at least a 20 per cent drop, while smaller towns like Opotiki on the North Island's east coast and Gore in Southland showed a 10 per cent slump.

Figures for 15-year-olds were not included because the licence eligibility age shifted in 2011, meaning teens now have to wait until they are 16 to apply for a learner's permit.

The change appears to also have affected older teens, with some who may have got their licence at 17 now waiting until 18.

University of Otago PhD student Aimee Ward, who is studying the travel behaviour of young people, says research shows the lack of interest in driving is occurring all over the world.

Ward said it was possible that some people would never get a driver's licence, leading to a rise in public transport use.

Focus groups had overwhelmingly told her that cost was an issue - licence cost, vehicle prices and maintenance fees all came into the equation.

"But they are also ambivalent about driving," Ward said.

"Their parents or friends will drive them around so they don't need a licence. I said to them, what if you get a job? And they reply, it would need to be at the weekend so my parents could drive me."

A recent international study showed a correlation between internet use and licensure rates in Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Germany.

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The study found "access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people".

Auckland's transport museum, Motat, also links the rise of the smartphone to the decline in licensing.

"Lots of things people used to do in cars they can now do on a smartphone," said exhibitions co-ordinator Emily Gordon.

"They don't need to drive and meet each other. Plus there are so many restrictions on driving now - seatbelt laws, the zero limit for drink driving for young people - smartphones have no restrictions."

However, Ward thought it was more complicated than that. She said while technology meant a driver's licence no longer stood for independence like it used to, there were other factors.

The increase of better public transport, a growing awareness of the impact of cars and a growing "pride" in taking the bus or train were also having an effect. "Plus there are a whole cohort out there who say they're just not ready to drive."

Mark Wilson, an Aucklander in his mid-20s, is one of those.

"I have an irrational - or rational - fear of the responsibility of controlling close to a ton of metal. The fact that I could endanger someone by veering off course by half a degree scares me.

" I don't think I am ready for that kind of responsibility. I don't think a lot of people are ready for that kind of responsibility."

Lichter, from One Tree Hill in Auckland, agrees. "My parents say it would be a good idea so they don't have to drive me around anywhere but I'm not keen in the slightest. Mostly just the fact that you have so much power in the dropping of a foot. That's the thing that I find a bit overwhelming and intimidating about it."

Lichter, who gets a ride with his mum to school but bikes most other places, says despite the fact it's still "cool" to have a car, he's content to take the bus.

"Public transport is bad but it's not that bad. I don't feel like I'm missing out by not having my licence."

- Sunday Star Times

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