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Gas prices force teens to put cruising in park Add to ...

Chris McClelland, 16, had been saving up for months to buy his first car: a sporty Volkswagen Jetta or maybe a Toyota Camry with a zippy four-cylinder engine.

But with local gas prices hovering at about $1.50 a litre, the Burnaby, B.C., teen is abandoning the dream of cruising around in his own vehicle this summer.

"It's not worth it to own a car any more," he said.

Instead, Mr. McClelland is borrowing his parents' car and slyly returning it just as the tank runs low, to avoid paying for gas. Even so, he said he drives it only when he has a destination in mind.

"It's the end of an era," Mr. McClelland said.

Recreational driving, or cruising, has been a rite of passage for generations of teenagers, representing freedom and independence to anyone old enough to obtain a licence, but record-high gas prices are putting the brakes on the classic summertime activity. The carefree days of driving for the sake of driving are over.

Teens say they're now spending as little time behind the wheel as possible, hanging out instead at friends' houses, at parks and beaches, and at movie theatres.

"I'm going out a lot less," said Tom Chao, 19, of Burnaby, who cut back on driving after he realized he was spending more than $20 on gas a day.

Cruising around was something he and his friends did often when they earned driver's licences a few years ago.

Then, the price of gasoline was cheaper by about 40 cents a litre.

But now, Mr. Chao said, "It's a waste of gas and a waste of time."

To many teens, the financial impact of soaring gas prices is a far greater deterrent than any environmental concerns.

Mr. McClelland said he had been eyeing only compact Volkswagens and Toyotas - cars with small engines - not because they're easier on the environment, but because they're more economical.

The biggest milestones in a young person's life are learning to walk, learning to ride a bike and then getting a car, Mr. McClelland said. "When you get a car, the possibilities are endless."

But since his fantasy of owning his own set of wheels has been dashed, he said, it's futile to mull over the hypothetical.

"There's no point any more," he said sadly.

The romance of cruising fades, teens say, when they have to scrutinize their gas consumption like minutes on their cellphones.

For Cassie Faris, 18, who lives in Maple Ridge, B.C., driving is unavoidable since shops and hangouts are beyond walking distance from her home. Public transit in her neighbourhood is infrequent, and there are no bus stops nearby.

Driving, to her, is a costly necessity rather than a pastime.

Ms. Faris estimates she spends about $200 a month on gas. Including the $150 a month she pays for insurance, her 2006 Pontiac Pursuit eats up the bulk of her earnings from her part-time job at a clothing store.

To stretch out her paycheques, she has taken to carpooling with friends, so everyone pitches in for gas and takes turns driving.

Driving aimlessly, she said, is out of the question.

"I don't drive to kill time. If we can't decide where we're going, I will pull over and turn my engine off," Ms. Faris said.

Her friend, Stephanie Craigon, 17, borrows her mother's Jeep on occasion.

Although it's her mother who picks up the gas tab, Ms. Craigon rarely takes it out for a spin. "It's expensive to fill up the Jeep, like over $100. It's pretty bad," she said.

Last year, Ms. Craigon said, she spent many summer nights cruising with her friends. This summer, with the price of gas rising by nearly 40 per cent, she and her boyfriend have been spending more evenings at their nearest movie theatre.

Even those who aren't yet old enough to drive are anticipating less time on the roads.

"Driving is fun, I've heard," said Lucy G.F., 15, of Vancouver, who declined to give her full name.

Like most teens approaching driving age, she intends to apply for her learner's licence on the day she turns 16. "I'm so excited, but I know I won't be able to [drive]much," she said. "Now gas prices are insane and you can't drive around randomly. And hybrid [cars]are expensive."

Lucy said she had been looking forward to cruising, as she's seen teens do on television and in movies. But now, she said, she'll miss out.

"It's not really fair," she said.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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