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March 21, 2010 12:00 AM

Taking it slow: Today's teens are in less of a rush to get their driver's licenses

Slow to Drive lead

Kelli Lamberte backs out of a parking space during a practice drive with Parkside Driving School instructor John Wildschut in February. (Andy Sawyer / Yakima Herald-Republic)

YAKIMA -- The reasons are as different as the teenagers themselves.

Marcos Yanez needed to bring up his grades. Kendra Grow was immersed in softball. Ana Duran couldn't afford it.

Kelli Lamberte was either moving, tied up with sports or simply had enough friends willing to give her a lift. A driver's license just wasn't that important, she says.

The process
  • • Kids in the state are eligible for a learner's permit at age 15 if enrolled in a driver's education course.
  • • Aspiring drivers younger than 18 must have their learner's permits for at least six months before receiving their licenses.
  • • In 2001, the state imposed an intermediate license, which restricts passengers and hours, for all drivers younger than 18. These restrictions ease as drivers get older.

"I'm not a big driver person," says Lamberte, a 17-year-old who recently enrolled in driver's education at Parkside Driving School in Yakima.

Statistics and anecdotal evidence show that for today's teenagers, a driver's license may not be the coveted milestone of independence it was for their parents.

Statewide, 39 percent of 16-year-olds received their driver's license last year compared with 48 percent in 2003, which is as far back as state Department of Licensing statistics go.

"They're just not in a big rush," says Kelly Story, who oversees registration for the driver's education classes at a Yakima high school. She even knows of a few parents actually trying to talk their ambivalent kids into getting behind the wheel.

If there's a common reason for the delay, it's money. Driver's education has become more expensive since the state stopped funding it in 2000. Private classes run from $285 to $400, and high schools that still offer the courses charge similar fees.

A lack of money postponed driver's education for Ana Duran, a 17-year-old senior and the daughter of field workers. "If we had the money ... we would have done it a long time ago," she says.

Slow to Drive jump

A driver's license hasn't been that important to 17-year-old Kelli Lamberte, who is now enrolled in driving school in Yakima. (Andy Sawyer / Yakima Herald-Republic)

Duran enrolled in her school's driver's ed course after school officials used funds from a private foundation to help her cover the cost. She plans to use her driving privileges this summer to attend Yakima Valley Community College in pursuit of a radiology career.

Luis Perez, a senior enrolled at Parkside Driving School, says he doesn't mind walking or taking the bus when he needs to get somewhere.

His mother, Vicki Ybarra, says that a driver's license was not a big priority for her son and that she wanted him to bring up his grades before working toward one. "I wanted Luis to be at a place of maturity," says Ybarra, president of the Yakima School District Board.

Junior Kendra Grow has just started driver's education at age 16, after most of her friends already have their licenses. She spent last spring and summer too busy -- and strapped for cash -- traveling with her competitive fastpitch softball team.

"I do really want to get my license, but it's not really a big deal to me to have to wait," Grow says.

Bad grades forced Marcos Yanez, a junior, to postpone driver's education until after he turned 16. So did his bad habit of skipping class.

"My mom was like, 'Oh well, you don't deserve that,' " he says.

It worked. He has improved both his grades and attendance. "They were right," he says with a grin.