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Where are all the teenage drivers?

There’s a lot less of them than there used to be.


Between 2001 and 2010, Texas added only 2,578 drivers age 16 to 21 while the age group grew by more than 238,000 statewide, dropping the percentage with a license from 62.4 percent to 55.9 percent.

Young adults who drive are doing so less often, researchers said, following a decade-long trend of higher gas prices and fewer young adult drivers.

Young people and transportation experts cite a variety of reasons why obtaining a driver’s license, once a rite of passage for any youngster, is becoming less important.

“Their status symbol, and maybe their focal point of choice, is their phone and the device they carry,” said Russell Henk, program director for the Teens in the Driver’s Seat program, a safety campaign created by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “A car, 10 to 20 years ago, was the way to get together. Not anymore.”

The economy, and the need to lower costs by reducing gas consumption, is part of the reason for the drop, which officials say has yielded safety benefits.

“That has been a clear reason why we have seen a decrease in fatal crashes for that age group,” Henk said.

Fatalities for young drivers dropped dramatically between 2007 and 2010, including a 47 percent drop in fatalities for 16- and-17-year-olds, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Preliminary data for 2012, however, shows road fatalities among young people might be on the rise.

Some suggest environmental consciousness is convincing young adults to ditch their gas-guzzling cars when possible, or to bike or walk to get some exercise.

Classes are being taught via webcast, goods can be bought without driving and friends can connect online from their respective homes. Even the workday commute can be erased.

“We live in a world where productivity is valued over placement,” said Taylor Kilroy, a University of Houston Law Center student and head of the school’s Energy and Environmental Law Society. “If an employee can produce the same quality work from home, why not allow them to work instead of being stuck in traffic?”

The trend nationwide goes farther back than 2001, and there’s not a strong consensus on the reasons for it. The economic downturn certainly contributed to the steeper decline of the past few years, but there’s more to it than that. This Grist story from 2010 gets at some of the other reasons.

Consider, for example, the fact that teen employment has been falling for most of the last decade. In 1978 (the beginning of the period that Advertising Age looks at) about 48 percent of driving-age teens in the U.S. held a job. By 2008, that number had fallen to 33 percent, and it now stands at just 26 percent. (Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) And while I couldn’t find reliable stats on the relationship between teen employment and teen driving, it’s easy to believe that falling employment meant that teens had less reason to drive, and also less money to pay for cars and gas.

Likewise, the fall in teen employment coincided with both an increase in college attendance, and a decline in the real earning power of minimum wage work, particularly in the 1980s and the early- to mid-2000s. Rising college attendance may have have contributed to a decline in the need to drive, while falling minimum wage earnings reduced teens’ purchasing power.

And then consider the effect of rising oil prices. The chart below shows the difference 1970 and 2008 — a different period than Advertising Age looked at — but the lesson is pretty clear: By 2008, it was taking an awful lot of time for a young worker to earn enough money to fill the tank.

I was a teenage driver nearer the beginning of the period in question. I got my license in New York when I was 17, but most of the driving I did back then was of the weekend and summertime variety, because I didn’t have my own car and I wouldn’t have driven to school even if I did – I went to high school in Manhattan, so driving would have been really expensive, and there was no place to park. I lived on campus as a college student, and didn’t have a car till midway through my junior year, when I inherited my grandmother’s car after she passed away. So my experience tracks with what that Grist article suggests – I did most of my driving between the ages of 17 and 21 during the summer after I graduated high school, when I had a job that I couldn’t get to via public transportation. Otherwise, I just didn’t need a car that much.

I think the key to understanding this trend is to see if driving among people in their 20s, especially those who came of driving age during the tough economic times of recent years, also declines. If so, then we may be seeing a long-term shift that might have implications for our road capacity needs of the future, among other things. If not, it’s probably no big deal. See The Highwayman and EoW for more on related topics.

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  1. TexasLeftist says:

    I think the shift in values among Millennials has a lot more to do with this than we realize. They simply don’t see a car as an immediate need like previous generations. Why ride the car when you’ve got a bus and rail system, or a booming bike share program? This article from the Atlantic explored the broader point, and I think they illustrate it well.

  2. Mainstream says:

    I was startled when a young guy in my neighborhood turned 16, and showed no interest in going down to get his driving license, and had not even taken the driver’s education course yet. He is good at video games on the computer, though. And has a bike.

    By contrast, I pestered my father to take me down to take the test the first day I was eligible for a learner’s permit, at age 15 1/2.

  3. N.M. Horwitz says:

    I have always been doubtful of the idea that young people **don’t want** cars. It has more to do with the fact that so many came of age in the midst of an economic depression. Perhaps I was insulated in the Bellaire/Meyerland bubble on my 16th birthday, but the consensus from just about everyone I knew in High School was that a car was ideal, but it was simply not fiscally feasible for many. I knew very, very few people who declined otherwise free & clear ownership of a car in high school, save for some potheads.