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 simply wasn’t that important, she said.
“I’m not a big driver person,” said Lamberte, a 17-year-old just now enrolling in driver’s education at Parkside Driving School in Yakima.
Statistics are fuzzy on the issue, but anecdotal evidence shows that the driver’s license is not the coveted milestone of independence to today’s teenagers as 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.
During the same time period, Yakima County’s rate dropped from 34 percent to 30 percent. Benton County went from 51 percent to 42 percent.
Nationally, only 31 percent of 16-year-olds got their licenses in 2008, compared with 45 percent in 1988, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
However, authorities say the national statistics could be skewed because since 1988 many states have adopted “graduated licenses,” which bestow driving privileges bit by bit over a year or more.
Still, a snapshot of teens and teachers here seems to show less urgency in getting a license.
“They’re just not in a big rush,” said Kelly Story, who oversees registration for the driver’s education classes at Sunnyside High School. She even knows of few parents actually trying to talk their ambivalent kids into getting behind the wheel.
In 2001, only 18 percent of the students in drivers education at Sunnyside High School had already passed their 16th birthday.
This year, 40 percent are already 16.
Kids in the state are eligible for a learner’s permit, which they need for driver’s education, at age 15 if enrolled in a driver’s education course.
If there’s a common reason, it’s the economy.
Driver’s education has become more expensive while gas and insurance prices dull the shine of adding another driver for some families.
In 2000, the state stopped funding driver’s education in high schools. In 2003, the state approved 170 school districts to offer driver’s education. This year, only 96 sought approval.
That forces more teenagers to rely on private classes. Those run between $285 to $400, and the high schools that still have driver’s education charge similar fees.
Some young people simply wait until they turn 18, when they can obtain a driver’s license without first passing a driver’s ed class. But that increases their chances of getting into a crash, said John Larson, business manager of A-1 Driving School in Yakima.
“It’s really kind of sad,” he said.
Worse still, some kids simply drive without a license. It’s one of the most common charges in municipal and district courts, though not all of them are kids, of course.
“They just go off the grid and drive anyway,” said Kevin Chase, superintendent of the Grandview School District.
Meanwhile, new laws have stripped some of the immediate thrill of a license.
In 2001, the state imposed the intermediate license, which restricts passengers and hours in steps as young drivers get older, for all drivers younger than 18. The state still considers that a license, however, and it registered on the federal statistics.
The laws have cut down on crashes, said Angie Ward, the young drivers program manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. But it also may prompt kids to ask, “Why bother getting a license if it comes with all those restrictions,” she said.
Another recent change mandated that aspiring drivers younger than 18 must have their instruction permits for at least six months before receiving their licenses. It still catches some parents off-guard.
“I’ve actually been told I ruined a couple sweet 16 birthdays,” said Ashley Hammond, office manager at Parkside Driving School in Yakima.
Lack of money — not motivation — is the only thing that postponed driver’s education for Ana Duran, a 17-year-old Sunnyside High School senior and daughter of field workers.
“If we had the money … we would have done it a long time ago,” she said.
Duran is enrolled in her school’s driver’s ed course after school officials used funds from a private foundation to help her.
Duran says she missed out on some dances, football games and hanging out with friends, but career concerns played a role, too.
She currently takes nursing assistant classes at YV-Tech, something her mother drives her to, and plans to use her driving privileges this summer to attend Yakima Valley Community College in pursuit of a radiology career.
Luis Perez, a Davis High School senior enrolled at Parkside Driving School, spent his sophomore and junior years volunteering at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle and trying to keep up with homework.
He figured he was too busy and didn’t mind walking or taking the bus.
“It’s not like I had to drive somewhere to get where I was going,” he said.
Now that he’s a senior, he’s even busier, but he got tired of waiting.
His mother, Vicki Ybarra, agreed that the driver’s license was not a big priority for her son and she wanted him to bring up his grades first.
“I wanted Luis to be at a place of maturity,” said Ybarra, president of the Yakima School District Board.
Kendra Grow, an East Valley High School junior, 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 said.
Bad grades also forced Marcos Yanez, a junior at Sunnyside High School, to postpone driver’s education until well after he turned 16. So did his bad habit of skipping class.
“My mom was like, ‘Oh well, you don’t deserve that,’ ” he said.
It worked. He has improved both his grades and attendance.
“They were right,” he said with a grin.