Over the winter break, my teenage children observed, based on their friends and acquaintances, that young adults are much less eager to get their driver’s licenses than they once were, and that in general fewer young people have them. I was skeptical at first, but it turns out they’re right. In 1983, 92 percent of Americans aged 20 to 24 had a driver’s license. In 2014, just 77 percent did. Were it not for that decline, 3.5 million more young people would be drivers today.
The change is occurring across young age categories, with sharp drops among teenagers. The share of 17-year-olds with driver’s licenses, for example, was down to 45 percent in 2014, from 55 percent in 2001. And the rates are falling for young men and young women alike.
Total vehicle miles driven by young drivers have plummeted, not only because a smaller share of them are driving but also because miles per young driver have also declined. In 1990, each driver aged 16 to 19 drove an average of almost 8,500 miles per year. In 2009, it was less than 6,500. Thanks to this and to safer cars, fatal car accidents involving teenagers are falling sharply, even though they remain the leading source of death in that age category. And fewer drivers also generally means less greenhouse gas emissions.
Why is this happening? One factor is the rise of laws that limit teenage drivers’ ability to drive by themselves — which might make getting a license as soon as you can less appealing. A related possibility is that the changes in the driving laws are causing faulty measurement. Yet these things can’t explain the decline among 20-24-year-olds.
So we are left with three explanations. One, favored by researchers at the University of Michigan, is the rise of social media. If you can connect with friends over Snapchat and Instagram, “there’s less of a need to get together by driving to popular hangouts or by cruising.” The second is economic. Teenagers asked why they don’t have a license often cite the expense; parents are often concerned about the additional cost to insurance. A final possibility is ongoing urbanization; as Americans increasingly live in cities, it’s easier to get by without a driver’s license.
Whatever the causes, the change since my generation came of age is stark. For many young people today, there’s a new rite of passage that’s bigger than learning to drive: getting your first phone number.