November 08, 2004
There won't be any T-Birds for this daddy to take away

Is it silly of me to hope that by the time Olivia is 16 someone will have invented Star Trek-like transporters so I won't have to buy her a car?

Nearly every culture has a recognized turning point between childhood and adulthood, when rules must be learned, tests passed, talismans awarded. In the United States, for the past half-century, the iconic rite of passage for a teenager has been this: You take your driver's test. You get your license. You slide behind the wheel and drive into the grown-up world.

In the past, the car in question usually belonged to Mom or Dad, who handed over the keys with a combination of pride and trepidation. Increasingly, however, the cars teenagers drive are their own. Even parents who hadn't planned to buy their children cars feel pressure to do so -- not only from the new drivers in their household, but also from other parents and from their own busy schedules.


According to CNW Marketing Research, which tracks national purchasing trends, 41 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States own cars, up from 23 percent in 1985. The percentage of parents who pay for those cars has also risen. In 1985, 19 percent of teenagers' used cars were paid for by their parents. Today the figure is 40 percent.

One reason parents are willing to spend the money is safety, according to Art Spinella of CNW. If their child is going to have a car, they want it to have air bags and anti-lock brakes. Another reason, he believes, is indulgence.

"Baby boomers are trying as hard as they can to not so much be parents as be friends with their kids," he said. "That translates into buying them a car instead of letting them buy their own car. It translates into buying them a new vehicle instead of getting them a used one and letting them do the work on it."

The safety part I guess I can understand. My first car was the beloved 1969 Chevy Nova I inherited in 1986 after my grandmother passed away. It had two main safety features - your choice of lap belts or shoulder belts, and a strong "your car will be worse off in any collision" vibe, which tended to encourage other drivers to give me a wide berth. I'd want a little more than that for my daughter. The indulgence part, forget it. My inner curmudgeon is already muttering "Be thankful you've got a car at all!" under its breath.

But some parents are resisting the trend. Long before 15 lives were claimed this fall in teenage driving accidents, [Julie] Sussman decided that her son Chad, a freshman at Westfield High School, will not get a license -- let alone a car -- when he turns 16 next year. He won't even drive until he turns 17 and becomes an Eagle Scout, his parents told him.

"Everyone I know who has a child who is driving has bought their child a car," Sussman said. "I don't judge them, but they all say to me, 'So, you're going to be getting Chad a car?' and I say, 'No, we're not getting Chad a car.' "

Their reaction: Yeah, right. Sure.

"Why am I defending myself?" she asked. "This is crazy. It should be the other way. I should be saying to them, 'Why are you letting them drive?' "

Amen, sister. Look, assuming I'm still in Houston and it's still as car-centric as it is now, it's probably going to be as much to my benefit for Olivia to have a car as it will be to hers. That's not the same as saying that she should be given a car with no responsibility to pay for it other than gas. And this is just from another planet:

As teenagers' car ownership rate rises, so does their pickiness. "Just having a car isn't enough in many circumstances," Spinella said. He said that one of the most popular cars among high school students is the Cadillac Escalade, a large sport utility vehicle that averages $50,000. "It's on MTV a lot -- they see a lot of music folks driving them," he said. "It's become kind of a teen cult idol car."

The two cars that Tiffany and I currently own cost less than that combined. If at the age of 16 Olivia feels entitled to that sort of thing, I'll consider myself to be an abject failure as a parent.

Via Julia, who is no doubt thankful for the New York subway system.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 08, 2004 to Society and cultcha | TrackBack

Sheesh. $50K is not much less than what I paid for my house! What kinds of jobs do these parents have??

I don't know whether my son will develop the cognitive skills to be able to drive, but if he does and if I decide to get him a car, it's going to be old and cheap. If there's a new car bought in this household, it's going to be for me first.

Posted by: Castiron on November 8, 2004 1:13 PM

You have no idea.

It's hard to HM to have any illusions about Muffy and Chad after she's ridden the train with them.

Posted by: julia on November 8, 2004 1:23 PM

What is this "friends to their kids" crap? I can't wait to be a unreasonable jackass to my daughter.

Posted by: Pete on November 8, 2004 1:32 PM

Oh God, I have two daughters, age 6 and 1.5 years old. This is one of my biggest nightmares.

Couple additional points on the subject.

1. If YOU don't buy them a car, how will they be getting around? It's not just about being a driver, it's also about being a passenger in cars driven by 16 year old friends. You have to ask yourself who will be driving them around if they don't have their own wheels. Will it be their testosterone-ladden boyfriend in the muscle car? Or perhaps the ditzy druggie blond friend in the little convertable? Are you going to drive your kids everywhere? I'm not sure you actually keep your kids safer by keeping them from driving if all that happens is they end up riding around with all their friends who have cars. Are you really going to be hard-assed enough to prohibit both driving and riding in any car driven by a teen? And will they actually comply if you do lay down such a rule? Personally I think I'd rather trust myself to do a really good job teaching my girls to drive and to have good road judgement and then allow them to drive under limited circumstances such as no more than one other pre-approved friend gets to ride along. I'm not sure I want to trust the driving skills of just any boyfriend who wants to pick her up. Maybe make them take separate cars on dates huh?

2. Big brother is here. With today's GPS technology you can track your kids car anywhere and also know if they've been speeding or somewhere they weren't supposed to go. Imagine what the technology will be in 10 years. If your kid is driving their own car, you will be able to know exactly where they are and where they've been and how fast they went getting there. If they are riding around in friends car you won't have a clue. God knows what kind of trouble I would have been in at age 16 if my Dad had a GPS tracker in my car!

For our own part, my wife has a 2004 Honda CRV that we are already designating as the kids car when the first one reaches driving age in 10 years. There's nothing wrong with driving a 10-year old car. I never had a car that NEW until after I graduated from college. And I'd rather have the kids driving a car that I've maintained since it was new, rather than going out to buy some used one that I don't know. One thing is for certain though, no 16 year old kid of mine is going to be driving a new car.

Posted by: Kent on November 8, 2004 2:07 PM

Ironically, I'm going for my learner's permit later this week (at the age of 38, but I'm in NYC), and harbor no illusions about driving a $50,000 car. I'll settle for a nice $12,000 Kia or Hyundai.

As for parents buying a $50,000 car for their kids, whatever happened to earning the money for a set of wheels? I guarantee that unless the kid is very, very, lucky, there is no way he or she will come up with that kind of money any time soon.

Posted by: William Hughes on November 8, 2004 2:22 PM

Buy a Mini-Cooper and store it for 16 years. By then it will be an antique and a highly-desired vehicle. Also, its size will make it "cute."

Posted by: Linkmeister on November 8, 2004 3:04 PM

My parents were brilliant. I was the oldest of four, and about three months after I turned 16 and got my license, they found a six year old indestructable Saab 900. Before I could even begin to think of it as "my" car, they made me sign a contract stating that I would assume all carpooling responsibilities upon the acceptance of the vehicle. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.

Posted by: 'stina on November 8, 2004 3:20 PM

My mother didn't allow me to get my driver's license until I was 17, and I acquired my first car when I was 19. I carpooled to my junior and senior years of high school with my chemistry teacher, and was allowed during my senior year to occasionally borrow my mother's car. I walked to my weekend job at the grocery store. And, for whatever reason, I never thought this made my mother an evil human being. I thought it made her sensible and reasonable.

No teenager should be driving an Escalade. That is just obscene. (Of course, it's not much less obscene when a full-fledged adult drives one, either, but that's a different rant.)

Posted by: Amy on November 8, 2004 6:58 PM

Well, if we're telling car stories, I went to a middle-class suburban high school in Oregon and graduated in 1982. At my school I'd say at least half the kids drove some sort of car to school and it being Oregon, there were just as many Ford 150 pickups that the kids would jack up and mess with. There was also a row of about 20 motorcycles out front each day. I got my license at 16 and was first able to start driving the retired family car, a forest green 1967 Peugeot 404 station wagon. Let me tell you that was not a cool car to be seen in. A 13 year-old Peugeot doesn't exactly scream cool. It was so uncool that it almost (but not quite) went all the way around to being cool.

My Junior year I bought a 1962 Volkswagon Beetle with money saved washing dishes. It was a lot older, but at least a Beetle was a bit more cool. This was the old style with the little rear window, a 6 volt electrical system, the most anemic window defrost on the planet, and no gas gauge. Instead it had a reserve lever. When you ran out of gas you flipped the reserve lever and got another 50 miles or so. I ended up driving that car across the country four times, once in winter. It's still parked in my parents garage and I'm 40 now. I rebuilt the engine twice.

My best friend had a 1964 White Ford Mustang convertable with red leather that his Dad restored. Now that was about the coolest car that it was possible to have.

Posted by: Kent on November 8, 2004 7:25 PM

Kuff says:
Is it silly of me to hope that by the time Olivia is 16 someone will have invented Star Trek-like transporters so I won't have to buy her a car?

Yeah, and maybe they'll come up with a device that eliminates her desire to go on dates, too!

Hoo boy, you're in for a ride in 15 years!

And for the record, I went to Westfield High School, home of car-less future Eagle Scout Chad. Even back in the late 80s, parents were buying ridiculous cars for their kids. Mustangs as far as the eye could see.

Posted by: Ellen on November 9, 2004 3:43 PM