In Washington, teens are waiting to get licensed until they’re 18 or older. But surprisingly, this makes them worse drivers than their younger peers.

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For years, a driver’s license represented to teenagers tantalizing adult freedoms. That little piece of plastic inspired visions of sun-kissed road trips, sports cars and make-out sessions in parking lots where mom wouldn’t drop in.

But for Washington teens, a subtle shift is under way. More are waiting to get licensed.

To nervous parents, it might sound appealing to put off sleepless nights worrying about car crashes. But to the Department of Licensing, the trend is troubling because it means more new 18- to 21-year-old drivers are hitting the pavement.

“Those are some of the riskiest drivers on the road,” said Department of Licensing Special Projects Manager Brady Horenstein — even riskier than 16- to 17-year-olds who, counterintuitively, make better drivers.

A look at who receives learners’ permits indicates the trend.

A comparison of 10 years of the licensing department’s permit data and Census Bureau population estimates shows the number of teens 15 to 17 who have permits has fallen slightly since 2004. Meanwhile, the number of 18- to 21-year-olds permitted has risen nearly 47 percent statewide during the same period. Without a permit, teens 17 and younger can’t get a license.

The trend is most evident in poorer communities, where fewer people seek permits. In ZIP codes with lower median incomes, a higher percentage of teens wait to pursue licenses until after they turn 18.

Why teens wait

In 2012, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety surveyed more than 1,000 18- to 20-year-olds across the nation who didn’t get their licenses until after they turned 18.

Why delay, the foundation asked?

Forty-four percent who responded said they didn’t have a car (so what’s the point?), 39 percent said they could get around just fine without driving and 36 percent said the cost of driving or gas was too expensive. (The numbers add up to more than 100 percent because those surveyed could list more than one reason.)

The cost of driver’s education played a role, too: 28 percent cited driver’s ed courses as a reason they didn’t get licensed; 26 percent said driver’s ed was too expensive.

In the past, driver’s ed was offered through public schools, but the Legislature in 2002 largely stopped subsidizing driving instruction. In 2012, Seattle Public Schools stopped offering driver’s ed programs altogether. By 2013, 88 percent of Washington driving students took classes at private driver’s ed schools.

In Washington, driver’s education usually costs about $500, and until you’re 18, classes are required to get a license. Janet Ray, of AAA Washington, said some frugal or financially unable teens simply wait until they’re 18, so they don’t have to pay for class.

Others just don’t seem to care. Thirty-five percent of teens who responded to the AAA survey said they “just didn’t get around to it.”

A license might be a ticket to freedom, but the cost is too steep for some and not worth it for others.

How teens get around

At Cleveland High School in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, students estimated about half their peers were actively trying to get licenses. Many are waiting.

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Tran Lam, 18, said her family wasn’t in a position to pay for driving lessons.

“I wanted to do driver’s ed, but the thing is, the classes cost $400 to $500 and based on our family’s financial situation back then, I couldn’t do it,” she said.

Lam plans to attend the UW next spring. She’s saving for a car and hopes to get her license but said saving for college is more important.

“I didn’t think I would need a car for anything. I could take the bus around or walk,” she said. “But I’m a senior now and I have a job and I have to run errands. Living without a car is really hard — complicated.”

Kaloni Sadettanh, 16, said his dad has been teaching him to drive (“I’m already pretty good at it”). Still, the Cleveland student said he wanted to “get the fundamentals” at driver’s ed. Sadettanh, who takes Metro buses, bikes and walks wherever he needs to go, said his dad would probably help pay for driver’s ed if he kept his grades up, but he didn’t feel like he needed a car to impress anybody at school.

“High school’s about fitting in, but you don’t have to have a car to say, ‘Look at me,’” he said.

To Sadettanh, a car represents not adolescent freedom, but something mundane: “You’re maturing,” he said. “I see it as a privilege.”

Jamilette Ruiz, 19, said her dad bought her a 2002 Mini Cooper, but it’s been sitting in the driveway. She just never got around to getting her license.

“It was not one of my priorities,” she said. She takes the bus and her older siblings give her rides.

Ruiz said if she’s 25 and still doesn’t know how to drive, she’ll need to do some “getting my life together.”

‘Riskiest drivers on the road’

The problem with teens waiting to get licensed: Those who wait become worse drivers, statistically, at least.

Recent licensing-department citation data shows drivers who got their licenses at age 18 received, on average, about three times as many citations as people who began driving at 16. Drivers over 18 are more likely to fail their driving tests.

To become licensed before turning 18, drivers must get a permit to practice and take driver’s ed. Once they turn 18, they simply have to pass the knowledge and in-person driving tests.

Conceivably, someone could pass both tests without ever having driven on a highway. The state driving test doesn’t cover that.

Horenstein said restrictions on licensed drivers under 18 help keep them safe. Those 16 to 17 years old receive an intermediate license — they can’t have passengers under the age of 20 for the first six months, and can’t drive between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. for the first year, unless they turn 18.

“There are no restrictions at all on an 18-year-old,” said Horenstein. “Passenger restrictions, nighttime restrictions — study after study has shown those produce better public-safety outcomes.”

Instructor Steve Phelan walks into 9-1-1 Driving School before he gives driving lessons. (Sy Bean / The Seattle Times)
Instructor Steve Phelan walks into 9-1-1 Driving School before he gives driving lessons. (Sy Bean / The Seattle Times)

Education matters

Teens who take driver’s ed fare much better on the road. A Nebraska study that followed 150,000 drivers over eight years found those who never took class were 24 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal wreck.

At 9-1-1 Driving School in Kirkland, former Bothell police Officer Steve Phelan makes a convincing co-pilot. A lean man with short-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, Phelan wouldn’t be out of place in a “Top Gun” remake.

Not that 15-year-old Paige Henderson, on her third drive for class at the school’s Kirkland location, needed a co-pilot. Phelan tapped the brakes just once from the passenger seat during Henderson’s lesson. She’s a capable driver who narrated her time behind the wheel in a witty singsong voice.

Henderson didn’t flinch when a Volkswagen cut her off (“My mom says you’ve always got to anticipate other drivers are stupid,” she said), or when a car crept into her lane (“Hello there, friend!”), or when a little girl walking from school let out a bloodcurdling scream for no obvious reason (“Me too, kid. Me, too.”).

Paige Henderson, 15, practices parallel parking during a driving lesson with 9-1-1 Driving School in Kirkland. (Sy Bean / The Seattle Times)
Paige Henderson, 15, practices parallel parking during a driving lesson with 9-1-1 Driving School in Kirkland. State data shows that younger drivers in Washington receive fewer traffic citations than those 18 and older. The driver’s ed requirement and restrictions on new drivers under 18 might be part of the reason. (Sy Bean / The Seattle Times)

But she’d never parallel parked. Phelan directed her to the side of an SUV.

“Don’t you have cones or something set up?” asked Henderson nervously.

“No, we’ve got to have live cars. Makes it more interesting,” Phelan said coyly.

Phelan briefly explained proper technique and then let Henderson give it a try.

“So, you’re going to put it into reverse, turn all the way to the right … ”

Henderson carefully guided the Nissan Versa to a 45-degree angle to the curb and pulled in behind the SUV.

“Sweet. That was way easier than I was expecting,” the relieved Woodinville High School sophomore said.

Henderson is one of those kids with a life-plan already mapped out. She’s going to keep up her 4.0 GPA and plans to get a zoology or biology degree in college.

And she has a few advantages on her path to becoming a safe driver.

“Her parents are involved in her driving. That makes a huge difference,” Phelan said.

Her family was also willing and able to pay for driving school.

“It’s been forever since I learned to drive. I don’t want to pass on any bad habits,” Mark Henderson, Paige’s father, explained.

A motivated student, involved parents and driving-school education right away — that’s the right recipe, said Jack Scott, who owns Kirkland’s 9-1-1 Driving School. But he realizes that’s not possible for everyone.

“The cost of driving schools are anywhere from $500 to get the course completed. That could be an essential amount of money for people,” Scott said.

Lawmakers

At the governor’s behest, the DOL has been working with lawmakers to create a driver’s ed class designed for the 18- to 21-year-olds who haven’t become licensed.

Senators this session introduced a bill that would require those drivers to take up to 10 hours of classes, including three hours of practical driving lessons. Low-income prospective drivers would be able to apply for subsidies.

But the bill fizzled in the Senate and failed to get out of committee.

For Henderson, it’s concerning that some of her older peers might not be trained.

“There’s stuff they don’t cover (in written tests) on the practical drives,” she said. “People on the road should have to take the class or have certified education.”