Ditching the American Icon

By: Mackenzie Patel

WANT Esteemed Contributor

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Getting a beat-up car from the junkyard down the street and cruising around a neighborhood for no reason in particular used to define the American teenage culture. The day a young person turned 16, it was only a short trip to the DMV with mom and then utter suburban freedom. Nowadays, many teenagers who are over the age of 16 are choosing to forgo the once liberating and novel license, opting instead to have their parents drive them around, take public transportation, or use their own two feet. However, the nagging question is “why?” Teens are notorious for loving speed and the “coolness” of being seen in a high school parking lot—this gradual change is surprising, even to a teenager like me. Megan Sloboda, a senior who attends Dixie Hollins High School, had a simple answer: “I have no car, my parents would have to pay for insurance, and I don’t have a job.” To get to and from school, her less-than-ideal solution has been to take the school bus—those yellow beasts of teenage angst and dread. However, the social stigma of taking the bus and not having an independent means of transportation may be declining. When asked if she ever felt embarrassed or ashamed about not being able to call a car “her own,” she shrugged her shoulders and nonchalantly said, “Yeah, sometimes, but it’s not a huge deal—it can be awkward at times.” Sloboda is just one in a swarming sea of teenagers who has delayed a trip to the DMV. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan in 2010, only 46% of 17 year old students had their driver’s license! This means the United States has likely undergone a major (although subtle) cultural shift. The classic image of Danny Zuko and his T-Bird chumps (from the movie “Grease”) being defined by how fast their vehicles could go is now dying. Modern teenagers are simply too distracted by social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook—and the exorbitant costs of owning a car, of course.

David Brown, a senior at Osceola Fundamental High School with a towering figure, also chose to ditch the Danny Zuko paradigm. Unlike Sloboda, he has a slick ride waiting for him, but the insurance is too expensive, especially for a teenage boy. He even tried to get a job during the summer to pay for the rising vehicle costs, but as that didn’t work out, his parents and the bus are his main modes of transportation. How does this combination of being older and having more responsibilities (i.e. jobs, sports, after school clubs), but not having a gas guzzling automobile play out in the everyday life of a teen? Especially in Pinellas County, there is minimal public transportation, making us look like the pathetic losers in the United States’ public transportation competition. For Brown, he unfortunately has to skip many school activities such as honor society meetings and orchestra practice. Also like Sloboda, he has his permit, but the 50 driving hours (10 of which must be completed at night) required to obtain a license is daunting. When I asked him when he plans on making the final driving leap, he replied eagerly, “I plan on getting my license either when I turn 18 or when the school year ends.” Public institutions are becoming increasingly interested in this hot button topic—after all, car companies and insurance businesses run the risk of losing considerable sums of cash.

Jesse Baird, also a senior at Osceola Fundamental High School, had a slightly different reason for waiting until six months after he turned 16 to procure the golden pass. Looking me square in the eye without a trace of embarrassment, Baird said, “I was too lazy. I had no motivation to get my license because I had no car.” Along with the University of Michigan, American Automotive Association (AAA) published a survey that contained shocking statistics. Only a measly 44% of teenagers had their driver’s license within a year of the age they could legally obtain it (for Florida, that age is 16). However, just because their wallets are lacking the plastic license doesn’t mean that teenagers can’t dream about their first car. When asked what car she would get if she could have one right now, Sloboda answered with a smile flickering on her lips, “I want an old, used car to start with; I don’t want to worry about getting in an accident.” So for now, the icon of Danny Zuko can be kissed goodbye; the sky-high costs of car insurance has nipped that relic of the American past in the bud.

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Originally published in tb-two*, an offshoot paper of the Tampa Bay Times

Photo Credit: Unsplash

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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