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Why the number of 16-year-olds getting driver's licenses in Arkansas has declined

Teenagers getting their driver's license has been a rite of passage for decades— though these days it seems many are opting for the passenger seat instead.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For decades, teenagers getting their driver's license has been a rite of passage— but these days it seems a lot of teens have been switching gears, opting instead for the passenger seat. 

It's a trend seen not only here in Arkansas, but also nationwide.

14-year-old Lucas Hankins got his driving permit as soon as he could, but he knows others aren't as interested.

"I'm gonna have to drive to work, and I'm gonna have to do stuff for my parents when they're older, so better do it now and get the experience instead of waiting," Hankins explained.

However, some other kids his age aren't in a rush. 

Aydin Jones could have gotten his permit last year but said it's not a priority for him right now.

"If I don't have any other responsibilities, I might just stick to not having one," Jones said.

15-year-old Sierra Cottingham has seen those responsibilities coming soon, and that's what's motivating her to get a permit after putting it off. 

"When I'm 16, I want to like, get a job. so I probably need to drive there, obviously," Cottingham said.

It's a trend seen on a national scale and according to the Federal Highway Administration, back in 1993, more than 42 percent of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses.

In 2021 that number was down to 25 percent.

Thompson Driving School in Little Rock has been open for 70 years. During Brock Thompson's time as owner, he's noticed an age shift in people learning how to drive.

"We started seeing 17, 18, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, 25-year-olds. and so yeah, we've seen that. and it's continued, as the years have progressed," Thompson said.

He explained that he thinks anxiety in the younger generation is partly to blame. 

"The kids are more nervous and that is real. I think kids these days, they can see something that's happened across the country, let alone across the globe, in instant seconds. and so, you know, the things that we used to have to deal with as an older adult, we didn't have to worry about all those things," he added.

Though Thompson also warns delaying driving can have consequences.

"If you're not starting at 14, you don't have two years of supervised experience and so that delay kind of dominoes," he explained.

"I think nationwide, no doubt the interest in driving from this generation from teenagers isn't there. There's not a sense of urgency, but in Arkansas, at least we are seeing that people are eventually obtaining a license. It's just a matter of when," said Scott Hardin, Spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

According to the department, the number of permits and licenses issued to 16-year-olds in Arkansas has recently declined, following that same national trend.

In 2021, the department issued just more than 19,000 permits and licenses to 16-year-olds, and last year they issued around 15,000.

Hardin said while he's not necessarily concerned about this shift— he's more focused on what the future holds. 

"Do we get to the point where people are 25 and say, well, maybe I need to get around to getting a license? Is that where we're going? That's what my curiosity, ultimately is," he added.

As for the teens we talked to, they're still hesitant but hope to conquer their fears and get behind the wheel one day.

"I'll probably rely on my parents. but if they no longer can give me transportation, I will try and find my own way of doing it," CJ Carlock said.

"I wanted to maybe try to get it over the summer, but not too entirely sure," Jones said.

According to the state, so far this year, there have been about 7,000 16-year-olds that have gotten their driver's licenses.

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