June 15, 2009

Fewer young people bothering to get driver's licenses

Continuing the series on how kids today have no life, let's take a very brief look at the teenage rite of passage of getting your driver's license. I have lots more data and graphs, as well as commentary, that I'll probably put up at GNXP.com sometime soon. (What caught my eye was this 2004 L.A. Times article. I've dug up all the data and made graphs.)

For now, consider only 19 year-olds (although the pattern is basically the same for under-16, 16, 17, and 18 y.o.s as well). They've had plenty of time to learn how to drive, they've been legal adults for 1 to 2 years, and they are unaffected by changes over time in their state's driving age, since no state has raised it to 20 or something. Here is the percent of the 19 y.o. population that are licensed drivers, from 1978 (when I could first find data) to 2007:

Even today, around 75% of 19 y.o.s have a license, but it used to be around 85%. This decrease by roughly 1/10 of the starting value may not sound like much, but imagine something else falling by 1/10 -- it's not small. And remember that these are 19 y.o.s -- the drop is even sharper for 16 y.o.s.

The peak year of having fun, during the time period here, was 1983. During the mid-'80s and after, fewer and fewer of the country's teenagers bothered to get a license.

We can rule out all explanations based on "substitute goods," since young people are biking less and less too. This also allows us to rule out increasing costs / insurance -- bikes can be found cheap, and you don't need insurance to ride them, yet people are still using them increasingly less. And though I don't have hard data handy, we know that they aren't walking a lot more either. We can rule out the "parental chauffeur" substitute since in general 19 y.o.s aren't living with their parents. If anything, they should be getting licenses at a greater rate since we live in a more sprawling society now compared to 25 or 30 years ago.

The common factor among less walking, biking, and driving is personal travel -- young people aren't going anywhere anymore, regardless of how they might have gotten there. Most of their social spaces have been closed down or taken over by full adults or infants. The mall is the most obvious example -- mostly for people who are no younger than 25, except for those stores supplying infant clothes, toys, etc., for parents in their 30s or older. I guess if I didn't have anywhere to go to indulge in some unsupervised fun, I wouldn't need a license either.

Still, wouldn't they at least want a license so they could drive to their friends' houses? Those haven't been torn down. They must not live in each others' houses as much as teenagers used to.

It's true that they are less likely to have a job, and so less likely to need a car for that reason. But again, what about all the other reasons that you're dying to get your license for? Let's not forget driving to school rather than walking, taking the bus, or having your mom drive you. And the male half of the population thinks -- or at least used to think -- it was required to be able to take a girl out somewhere, rather than use public transportation or having your parents drive. And forget about making out or getting laid in the back of your car if you can't even drive!

Thank god adolescence will always provide plenty of social drama to keep teenagers' lives from getting too boring. Still, what about all the other sources of excitement? While 16 y.o. girls may find it exciting enough to re-hash all of the social conflicts that have erupted during the day, boys can only take so much of that shit. Pretty soon you get restless and just want to go out and do something.

Like what?

Dude, I dunno... but let's just go out and do something!

I mean, dude, if only there was something to do.


  1. They may not have a US birth certificate.
    A higher percentage of these people are illegal immigrants than in the 1980's.

    In some states back then, you could get a license at 15. In the 70's farm kids could get a special license to drive farm equipment on public roads during the day at 14. I don't know about today

  2. One possible explanation is the increasing proportion of 19-year-olds who are in college rather than out working. Cars are generally unnecessary on college campuses and parking is often limited. Still, this can't be the whole explanation, as surely they would have wanted to get their licenses as high school juniors and seniors.


  3. There have been many restrictions placed on teen driving (below 18) by many states since the early 90's. Some states, a teen driver cannot have other teens as passengers unless an adult is in the car. Other states have it where teens cannot drive around at night without an adult or parent in the car. These sorts of restrictions have basically eliminated "cruising" as a teen activity.

    Perhaps insurance premiums for teens have become so expensive. On the other hand, parents tend to dote these kinds of things on their kids, unlike the babyboomer 70's when teens usually paid for these things, and their cars, themselves.

    Maybe parents continue to shuttle their kids around well into their teens.

    You're right that this is a big change in teen culture since I was a kid. I got my license at age 16, as did everyone else I knew.

    My impression is that teens these days seem much more passive than they were when I was a teen (and liked to party a lot).

    Remember "kegger" parties? I loved these.

  4. I'm recently 19 and haven't gotten my license yet. Most of my friends are older and live in the area, so I don't really feel the need to get my license at the moment. Plus I'm the boring bookworm type - most Friday nights I'm either tearing up the shelves of the local bookstore or staying late at ballet rehearsal. Everything I need or want is 10 minutes away. Sigh.

  5. In some states back then, you could get a license at 15. In the 70's farm kids could get a special license to drive farm equipment on public roads during the day at 14. I don't know about today

    Yeah, my girlfriend got her full license at 14 in ND. Wild. This was c. 1997, so pretty recent. I see there is a spike around 1998, when I got my license at the expected age. Right afterward my state made the requirements a lot harder and introduced some of the restrictions mentioned above. For me, the only limit was no driving after 11 till 18...which was the town curfew anyway.

  6. There seems to be a trend of treating teens like children instead of like the young adults they really are. When my parents graduated high school, the big question people asked each other was if and when, to whom they were getting married. Now it is about job or college etc. The new restrictions on teen driving make teens safer I guess, but they need to be allowed to grow up and be welcomed into the adult world. I remember a hs senior on the last day of high school, after finals asking me for a hall pass to the bathroom. I looked at her and smiled and shook my head. Then I said," You can drive, you can vote, but you can't walk across the hall to go pee without a piece of paper from teacher." She smiled and went to the restroom and then out to her car. The assistant principal was an old bag. She was so mad when she stopped by and realized I had let my seniors just leave. I smiled and nodded and said, "okay."


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