Costco customers in South San Francisco
look for a bargain at the pump.
By Bruce Siceloff
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
RALEIGH, N.C. — Lauren Wooten and her Mustang have been in demand since she started driving this spring.
"It's 'Oh, let's ride with Lauren — she has her license now,'" said Wooten, 16, a Clayton High School sophomore. "I find myself taking people places, and I'm usually the one driving."
She won't ask friends to help buy gas, she said, "because I would feel rude."
But every time she draws a paycheck from her after-school grocery job, she must trim her plans for shopping and eating out to cover the record-high, still-rising cost of gasoline.
"When I'm spending my money, I've got to think about saving for gas instead of spending and spending," Wooten said.
Like their parents, teen drivers are wrestling with a run-up in pump prices that has eroded their purchasing power at a stunning rate. The price of regular has risen by more than one-third since early February.
"It takes almost all the money out of my paycheck," said Will Penny, 18, a Cary High senior who works as a counselor for a YMCA after-school camp.
Young drivers are paying a special price at the pump — a surcharge on simple mobility that, until recently, was taken for granted as part of the American teenager's identity.
In interviews, students at Clayton and Cary high schools and UNC-Chapel Hill talked about how they cope with new constraints on core freedoms that are wrapped up in their cars and the little money they control from allowances and part-time jobs.
Penny and a couple of pals take turns driving to school, where they share a parking space that costs $120 this year. At noon on a recent school day, they piled into Tyler Everett's car and headed for the Cary Towne Center food court.
"There's not much joy riding," said Everett, 18, also a Cary High senior, over his Chick-fil-A lunch. He delivers subs for a local sandwich shop after school, and he needs about $30 a week to fuel his brother's Camry.
"It's turned into more of a hassle than a pleasure," said Taylor Paine, 18.
Abby Huggins, 18, was the only one in this group without a part-time job. She plans to find work this summer.
"My parents pay for my gas," Huggins said. With a smile and a nudge for Paine, she added, "And I make my boyfriend drive me around."
THE SHAME OF BUSING
These Cary seniors have cut back on their driving, but they hate to leave their cars parked for long. They scoff at the idea of riding a yellow bus to school with the younger students.
"Most of us did that before we got cars," Everett said. "Cool points suffer, if you roll up on the bus as a senior — especially when you've been driving."
Ron Smith, 17, has one more year at Clayton High School. He earns about $400 a month after school at Walgreens, and he pours about half his money into the tank of his 2000 Oldsmobile Intrigue.
"I put in $30, and it's just giving me a little past half a tank," Smith said. "For $10, the needle barely moves. I can remember when you could put in $10 and actually have some type of gas in the car."
The high price of gas is a cruel assault on teen freedom, he said.
"We waited and worked hard to get our cars. We can't enjoy them if we can't drive them," Smith said. "I can't really do what I want to do any more. Gas is making a lot of people be still.
"I love to be out on the road. I've got to go somewhere to have fun, just do what regular teenagers do. The majority of teenagers like to be away from home."
Smith and his friends won't be driving to Myrtle Beach as often as they did last year. Other teens are cutting back on road trips, too.
"This summer we were thinking of taking a trip to Carowinds or Busch Gardens, but we're rethinking it because it's going to cost so much," said Sarah Frantz, 16, a Clayton High junior.
Frantz and her father have switched cars to cut the cost of his longer daily drive. He takes her thrifty Toyota, and she gets the Chevy pickup.
"It gets about 15 miles per gallon on the highway, if I'm really careful," she said. "I'm always looking at my gas gauge. No quick starts or braking, just to make sure I'm not burning any more than I need to."
The economics of driving changes when teens go off to college. Friends live together, and class is a short walk across campus.
Faisal Lakhany, 19, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, couldn't afford to take his family's hulking Chevy Suburban to summer school. These days, with gas pump credit purchases limited to $50 or $60, it takes three swipes of the card to fill a Suburban's 40-gallon tank.
Instead, Lakhany borrows his cousin's Acura. He car pools to movies and restaurants. Sometimes he collects gas money from his riders.
"It's definitely cramping my social life," Lakhany said. "My father says you have this much to spend, and don't go over it."
Some teens are adjusting more cheerfully to life away from their cars.
"Just driving around with my friends, just hanging out, we stopped that," said Manny Opoku, 19, a UNC-CH junior. "It's OK, because now I'm getting more of a chance to play basketball with friends and exercising."
Instead of driving to Wal-Mart to buy toothpaste, Opoku walks to Ken's Quickee Mart, a convenience store near his Granville Towers dorm.
He's getting to know his neighborhood and getting to know his fellow students. In the era of $4 gas, lunch lasts longer and conversation runs deeper.
"Before, you would just eat lunch and talk about sports, talk about girls — and then go, 'Hey, I'm leaving.' And get in your car and leave. But now, because gas is so high, there's nowhere to go."
These days, Opoku and his friends linger at the table. They talk about politics, their studies and themselves.
"You run out of superficial things to say. If you want to keep the conversation going, you've got to talk about something deep. And you like it," Opoku said.
"Now we're moving at a different pace."
(c) 2008, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
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