For car-loving teenagers, this is turning out to be the summer the cruising died.
Kevin Ballschmiede, 16, pined for his 1999 Dodge Ram – “my pride and joy” – the other night as he hung out in a lot in this town outside Chicago. Given that filling the 26-gallon tank can now cost more than $100, he had left it at home and caught a ride.
U.S. teenagers appear to be driving less this summer. Police officers who keep watch on weekend cruising zones say fewer youths are spending their time driving around in circles, with more of them hanging out in parking lots, malls or movie theaters.
The price spike in gasoline, to an average of $4.07 a gallon for regular, is so recent that government statistics do not yet capture the teenage-driving trend. But the figures show that overall demand for gasoline is dropping. In dozens of interviews, teenagers and their parents said the price of gasoline was forcing hard choices on them.
These days, any long trip involving a group of teenagers is likely to involve careful negotiation over who pays. And some teenagers are realizing that gas prices have put their dream of owning a car out of reach.
Tim Chou, 19, a student at the University of Illinois, had to give up his gas-guzzling 1996 Nissan Quest.
“My parents decided to donate my car to charity because they didn't want to pay for the insurance and gas anymore,” Chou said. “I guess I'll be doing a lot of car-pooling.”
Perhaps the summer's most visible change is occurring in the downtown strips of small towns where, for decades, cruising on Friday and Saturday nights has been a teenage rite of passage. It is a peculiarly American phenomenon – driving around in a big loop, listening to music, waving at one another and wasting gas.
“We're not cruising around anymore, with gas costing $4.50 a gallon,” said Ewelina Smosna, a recent graduate of Taft High School in Chicago, as she hung out the other night at an outdoor mall in Schaumburg. “We just park the car and walk around.”
Randy Ballschmiede, an airline mechanic from West Dundee, Ill., said that while he can empathize with the passion of his son, Kevin, for cruising with friends, he is not sure the teenager has come to grips with financial realities.
“We live a very cautious life financially, but Kevin seems to think there is no end to the money,” Ballschmiede said. “He tells me about his buddy, whose parents gave him a gas credit card, and I told him, ‘That is not going to happen at our house.'”