Giving Teens the Option Not to Drive

The Adolescent Mobility Health Consortium sees teen driving as an urgent public health issue.

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As we absorb the latest round of evidence that Millennials are leading the way in reducing vehicle miles traveled in the United States, a group of academics and advocates is meeting in New Zealand to discuss ways to reduce driving among teenagers on a global scale.

The Adolescent Mobility Health Consortium, holding its second annual symposium at the University of Otago in Dunedin, is a group of people from around the world who see teen driving as an urgent public health issue that needs to be addressed in order to save lives.

In New Zealand, as in many other countries, motor vehicle crashes remain the top cause of death and serious injury for people between the ages of 15 and 19. In the United States, it’s the same, although 40 percent of parents remain unaware of that reality.

AMHC members say the problem extends beyond the deaths and injuries, as horrifying as those are. Their website explains:

Although poorly documented, ‘non-traffic’ teen risks from car use include physical inactivity, obesity, alcohol and drug use, poorer grades, and sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, ubiquitous driving places huge external costs on society in the forms of noise, pollution, congestion, sprawl, community severance, inequity, energy poverty, energy depletion, biosphere harm and climate change.

The researchers in the consortium see adolescents not only as uniquely vulnerable to the risks of driving, they're uniquely open to exploring alternative transportation options and forming lifetime habits that are less autocentric than those of previous generations. While teens are susceptible to marketing and peer pressure, they also often have a strong financial incentive to avoid car dependence:

They are at a stage when many make decisions about whether to learn to drive, how much and how far to drive, and whether to buy a car, not just whether to drive safely. Hence, they also have the stimulus at this important juncture to consider their choices, and “may be more receptive to new ideas and information.” 

Graduated licenses have been helpful in reducing teen driving and fatalities where they have been implemented, but at this point research shows the benefits have plateaued. And so many AMHC members are looking to the model of “transportation demand management" or “mobility management.”

This strategy encourages people to use more efficient and beneficial travel modes (off-peak car trips, for instance, or using transit rather than a personal motor vehicle) through a holistic, integrated set of policies ranging from parking prices to transit improvements to traffic calming. This combined approach, according to its advocates, can shape the way people make travel choices over time. Having a bike-share system, for instance, combined with traffic-calmed streets, will make people more likely to bike rather than drive, thus reducing congestion and emissions. And the person gets some exercise, too.

According to the AMHC, this model could be particularly effective when solving the public health problem of teen driving. Kids need to be able to make fully informed choices and not be forced into driving simply because the society doesn’t offer alternatives or make them truly useful and accessible:

TDM is potentially more beneficial to adolescents than traditional road safety efforts aimed at making a costly, risky and unhealthy activity (driving) marginally safer. These efforts aim to promote the consideration and adoption of alternatives to the cultural and generational expectations of ubiquitous driving in private automobiles. It is about the freedom for youth to choose their mobility options with full knowledge of the benefits and drawbacks of each alternative.

At the symposium, one of the speakers will be a young New Zealand woman named Brittany Packer. A university student who served in 2009 as a member of the New Zealand Youth Delegation to COP15, the United Nations' 15th Climate Change Conference, Packer will be speaking on a theme important to many in her generation: "Active transport, youth, and climate change – preparing for our low carbon future." Packer and lots of her peers understand that young people need the freedom to make better transportation choices. It’s up to the rest of us to get with the program.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.