Saving themselves: Teens practice abstinence... on driver's licenses

By Jim Motavalli

The evidence is in, and it's not just my license-free 18-year-old daughter. The percentage of young people with licenses is definitely going down.

According to a University of Michigan survey, in 1983 a third of all licensed drivers in the U.S. were under 30 (and 87 percent of 19-year-olds were driving). But today, "only about 22 percent of drivers are twentysomethings or teenagers." Thirty years ago, half of all drivers were under 40; now less than 40 percent are.

Blame cell phones, which are replacing the need for face-to-face interaction. Michigan researcher Michael Sivak of the Transportation Research Institute says, "It is possible that the availability of virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact between young people. Furthermore, some young people feel that driving interferes with texting and other electronic communication."

There are some positive aspects to this: Fewer drivers means fewer cars on the road, less congestion, and reduced levels of local smog and climate emissions. Yeah! But it seems a bit harsh that kids don't feel the need to actually see each other.

For answers, I went to Chuck Underwood, who hosts the show America's Generations on PBS and wrote the book The Generational Imperative. He calls himself a "generational study expert." Who better than him?

"For prior generations," he told me, "a driver's license meant maturity, freedom, independence, and privacy, especially on a date."

"Baby Boomers, age 48 to 66 this year, and the older Silent Generation, age 67 to 85, came of age during the heyday of the American automobile in the 1950s and '60s and the construction of the interstate highway system. They watched variety show host Dinah Shore close her Saturday night TV show by singing "See the USA in your Chevrolet." Cars were spectacular, America was magical, Americans wanted to drive those new highways and see their beautiful country, and a driver's license was the ticket to all of that.

"Today things are different. Millennials are postponing the serious commitments of career, marriage, and parenting. Because we're in a golden era of anti-aging science and medicine, they know they're going to live well past 100, so their 20-something attitude towards all-things-adult is what's the rush? And wouldn't prior generations have loved that same opportunity?

"We have helicopter parents now. Soccer moms and NASCAR dads. Living with the folks in their 20s. And the environment as their most passionate cause. Who NEEDS to drive, who WANTS to drive?"

That's putting a positive spin on it.
The millennial generation, Underwood tells me, have their parents as "weekend buddies, confidantes, and best friends." And that closeness diminished the need for a license– we parents are right there, after all. And many of the young people who have left the nest are living and working in big cities, where there's public transit and driving is a hassle.

Things indeed have changed a lot. I got my license the very day I turned 16. I could call my friends on the phone, but I couldn't text or email them.
I must admit I still don't really get how Facebook replaces having friends over and sharing a laugh with them in the same room. But my family is always telling me I don't "get" Facebook. OK, guilty as charged.

Jim Motavalli is an online contributor to the New York Times, CBS Interactive, Hearst and the Mother Nature Network, as well as author of six books including "Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future."

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I beg to disagree. Without evidence to back it up, my intuition is that money plays a large role in postponing driving.

Insurance rates for this age group are sky high, and with gas prices rising, many teens can't afford to drive.

With more and more single parents, the luxury of an extra car for the kid to drive has disappeared. Even adults are giving up their cars - it's just too expensive.

Face it - times have changed, and cars are now a luxury for many.

I see that 87% of 19-yr-olds had licenses in 1983 - how many do now?? It makes sense that there are fewer young drivers compared to older simply because of the aging baby boomer generation, but the most important data would be to compare the % of same-age people then & now. Any thoughts??

I also think the lack of employment options for the young makes a car less necessary as well as less attainable. Unfortunately it is often a viscous circle because it can be hard to get a job without a car. No job = no car = no license = no car = no job

I wonder how the percent of highschoolers who ride the bus has changed.

Another reasons teens lust to drive may be diminishing.

" Fifteen states and the District of Columbia now prohibit teenagers from driving with another teenager, and all but seven states forbid them from driving with more than one. In South Carolina, teenagers cannot drive after 6 p.m. in winter (8 p.m. in summer), and in Idaho, they are banned from sundown to sunup."

Even taking one of the theses in this article at its word--that young people don't need to see each other that much anymore and that may not be a bad thing for the environment (i.e., less drivers)--it begs the question:
Would you rather live in a country with some pollution but a lot of interaction OR in an environmentally pristine nation of shut-ins?

Now--and hear this AARP--that we have beaten on the heads of teenagers by restricting their driving, let's get cracking on the seniors. I fear for my life if I have to enter an roundabout with some 85 year-old who looks like a hamster drinking water from a tube as he hugs the 12-o'clock-position of the steering wheel and struggles to comprehend all the input.

R.I.P.: Richard Jaeckel

"I see that 87% of 19-yr-olds had licenses in 1983 - how many do now??"

I am curious if it coincides with the school systems trying to save money and dropping their free driver ed courses?

These statistics aren't what I see in my neck of the woods here in Albemarle County.

But if it's so I'd say it's a combination of helicopter parenting and economics - as Nancy Drew pointed out. It's a lot more expensive to buy a used car these days. In 1983 a teenager could get a part-time job and pay for a car themselves. Not so much so today.

In any event, I think you're doing your kid a disservice if you don't teach them how to drive. You don't have to get them a car by any means, but you can make sure they have the skill.

The UMich study looked at everyone under 30, not just teenagers. There is one huge difference between the 16-20 crowd and the 21-29 crowd: the latter get to choose where to live.

Many teenagers without cars have to forgo face-to-face social interaction, because their Boomer parents decided to live in places that require a car for social interaction. However, 20-somethings have resolved this dilemma in a simple way. They are moving to places where real social interaction can happen without a car. Or, at least, those who can afford to are.

hahaha his article is horse shiiiit.

kids aren't choosing to not drive because that would seperate them from their cell phones or because they don't want to see their friends.

that's stupid and if you believe stupid "findings" like this, you are brain dead.

I guess we had fun in our teens, driving 90 mph, drunk and high, and if that werent enough we would steal a car and do the same.
I must have a guardian angel.