The share of teens with driver’s licenses peaked in 1983, when 72 percent of Americans aged 16–19 were legally approved to drive. Today, only about 50 percent are.
The decline has stupefied many a baby boomer and Gen Xer, who can’t imagine why young people today don’t want to hit the open road. Writing in The Atlantic in May 2018, Penn State professor Gary Cross fretted about the loss of that “magical age of 16, when suddenly a world opened up.” The Washington Post in 2015 dedicated more than 2,000 words to how America’s love affair with cars was “cruising towards oblivion” because those damn kids don’t want to drive.
What do teens actually say? According to a University of Michigan survey, the two most common reasons given for not having a driver’s license were being “too busy” to get one (37 percent) and thinking that owning a car “is too expensive” (32 percent). Most of the teens surveyed (70 percent) said they planned to get a license eventually.
Owning a vehicle was never cheap, but those survey responses suggest there’s simply more competition for teens’ dollars and attention today than in the past. Do you want to spend your money and time fixing up an old car or buying and playing Red Dead Redemption 2?
“Car culture” has always been an American touchstone, but researchers have found similar declines in teen driving rates in Canada, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. The University of Michigan analysis correlates the decline in teen driving with the rise in internet use, suggesting that cyber connectivity and escapism is replacing the lure of the open road—or at least slackening the need to drive to friends’ houses to hang out in person.
But teens holding off on hitting the road isn’t cause for worry. For one thing, it’s probably good for public health. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2,400 Americans aged 16–19 were killed in car crashes in the United States during 2016—about six deaths per day. That’s down from 7,993 deaths in 1995, and 9,659 in 1985.
As for the loss of car culture? Times change, and social norms evolve—teens don’t rock out to Elvis, the Ramones, or Linkin Park anymore, either. That’s fine. There’s no single reason fewer teens are driving today, and no amount of consternation is likely to reverse the trend.
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