by Charlotte Lee
In 1973, iconic American singer-songwriter Tom Waits kicked off a promising career with his first album, “Closing Time”. One of his hits was “Ol’ 55”, a song about cruising down the freeway at sunrise. The 70s were the epitome of American car culture: second-hand cars were a hallmark of teenage freedom, a symbol of independence. For the sixteen-year-olds who first learned to drive, cars allowed romantic first dates and the liberty to blast music as they so pleased. Whether it was because of the Interstate Highway System or relatively poor public transportation, American car culture was a norm unseen and unrivaled in other countries. While American teens had their first taste of adulthood, children in the rest of the world resorted to buses, trains, and bikes.
But this car culture was short lived. In 2014, only a 25 percent of sixteen-year-olds had licenses, while in 1983, that number was 46 percent. Evidently, Generation Z is letting go of America’s expired passion. In “Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession”, Gary Cross outlines three aspects of this decline: technology, law, and culture.
More so now than ever, technological improvement has continued to soar upwards, and cars now have increasingly more complex electronic components. In effect, the tradition of fixing up old cars in a home garage is no longer a reality for teens of this day and age. Car depreciation rates have slowed, and second-hand-cars have become more expensive.
Several decades ago, American law permitted teenagers to drive at relatively early ages because driving was helpful for working on family farms. But with a departure from agricultural lifestyle, teenagers started to use their permit for leisure, which developed the car culture seen in the late 70s and 80s, the age of Pontiacs and Mustangs. The original purpose of driving law has now become outdated.
Since the 70s, significant law actions have emerged to limit teenage car use. Research shows that America’s relatively early driving permit age has some problematic effects. Drivers aged 16-17 are much more accident prone than those aged 18-19— this is especially true for males. Starting in the 90s, the American government began to implement elements of Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL), which are laws that are designed to give new drivers more experience before allowing them complete driving freedom. For example, while sixteen-year-olds may have a permit, night driving is not allowed until 18 years of age.
Lastly, American car culture is being slowly driven away by newer innovations. The digital revolution gifted the new generation of youth Instagram and iPhones, a new way for teenagers to escape the control of parental authority and feel independent.
Regardless of when and how, as author Gary Cross contends, the world in the eyes of a sixteen-year-old will always be one of newfound liberty and opportunity. Although the new generation will never understand why Baby Boomers felt so attached to feeling of cruising down a freeway, it is inevitable that all youth will grow up too fast, in their own way.