I don’t personally remember cruising down Main Street, but the idea of ‘wheels’ representing freedom was still the norm in the ’70s. Getting your driver’s license was still a rite of passage. Today there are fewer drivers among high school and college students. Why is that?
Back in the 50s and 60s, having a car, or access to a car, gave you status and freedom. Take the example of ‘American Graffiti’, an iconic movie about coming of age in the early 1960s. Two boys are about to leave for college, full of doubts about the course of their lives. They spend their final evening in their hometown, cruising ‘the strip’, having a series of adventures revolving around their classic cars. Drag racing, picking up girls, Inspiration Point and drive-ins. It’s all in there.
As a teenager in the 70s, I couldn’t wait to get my license and the keys to the car (the family car). It was the ultimate in freedom, independence and having a social life. And to be the one doing the driving, picking up friends and heading out to someone’s house or our favorite hangout… there was nothing like having wheels. (Does anyone from northern NJ remember Jan’s on Route 4? Home of the ‘Kitchen Sink’?)
Young people are still getting their license and doing these things, but the numbers are dropping. According to a study by the CDC, the percentage of high school seniors who had a driver’s license fell from 85% in 1996 to 73% in 2010. There are several reasons for this:
1) It’s very expensive to own, operate and maintain a car. Add an iffy economy to the mix, and having a car doesn’t feel like a necessity.
2) Some speculate that the GDL (Graduated Driver’s License) discourages some teens from taking their test because they are restricted from driving with young passengers and driving at night.
3) It’s called the Internet. With the Internet and smart phones, our kids are making connections and getting their thrills without ever leaving home. They can shop, socialize and travel, virtually, online.
4) Parents are encouraging their kids to wait. They are more fearful about letting their kids loose on the road, and understandably so. The kids are inexperienced and it’s dangerous out there.
Whatever the reason, more young people are waiting to drive and own a car. Hmmm. Maybe it’s really because they don’t want to end up stuck in endless traffic jams.
P.S. – The young actors who became popular after appearing in this movie is staggering: Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Joe Spano, and Suzanne Somers, to name a few.)
(Statistics from the USA Today article, ‘Many teens taking a pass on a driver’s license’.)