Baby, You Can’t Drive My Car

This week I was rather surprised to find out that a early-20s acquaintance of mine who lives in a rather rural area did not have a driver’s license. I know this person well enough to know there is no medical reason for this, and she is now pursuing getting one. Knowing the area she lives in I was pretty surprised to hear this, particularly considering she has a job and a small child.

Now living around a large city with lots of public transportation options, I do know people who are medically unable to get a license (and thus stick close to public transit) and those who simply dislike the thought of driving (because they grew up around public transit), but I hadn’t met many people in the (non-big city) area I grew up in who didn’t get a license.

As often happens when I’m surprised by something, I decided to go ahead and look up some numbers to see how warranted my surprise was. It turns out I was right to be surprised, but there may be a trend developing here.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2009 87% of the over-16 population had a driver’s license. There’s a lot of state to state variation, but the states I’ve lived in do trend high when it comes to the number of drivers per 1000 people:

Note: that map is licenses per 1000 people of all ages, so some states with particularly young populations may get skewed.

This appeared to confirm my suspicions that not having a license was relatively unusual, particularly in the New England region. Most of the places that have lower rates of licenses are those that have big cities, where presumably people can still get around even if they don’t know how to drive. I am a little curious about what’s driving the lowish rates in Utah, Texas and Oklahoma, so if anyone from there wants to weigh in I’d appreciate it.

I thought that was the end of the story, until I did some more Googling and found this story from the Atlantic, about the decreasing number of people who are getting driver’s licenses. The data I cited above is from 2009, and apparently the number of licensed drivers has been falling ever since then. For example, this paper found that in 2008, 82% of 20-24 year olds had driver’s licenses, but by 2014 76.7% did. In contrast, in 1983 that number was 91.8%.

So what’s the reason for the decline? According to this survey, the top 5 reasons for those aged 18 to 39 are “(1) too busy or not enough time to get a driver’s license (37%), (2) owning and maintaining a vehicle is too expensive (32%), (3) able to get transportation from others (31%), (4) prefer to bike or walk (22%), (5) prefer to use public transportation (17%)”.

Like most surveys though, I don’t think this tells the whole story. For example, the top reason for not having a license is that people are “too busy” to get one, but the study authors noted that those without licenses are less likely to be employed and have less education than those with licenses. This suggests that it is not extended outside commitments that are preventing people from getting licenses. Additionally, anyone who has ever lost the use of their car knows it can take a lot more time to get a ride from someone else than it does just to hop in your own vehicle.

My personal theory is that getting a drivers license is something that requires a bit of activation energy to get going. Over the last decade or two, state legislatures have progressively enacted laws that put more restrictions on teen drivers, so the excitement of “got my license this morning and now I’m taking all my friends out for a ride tonight” no longer exists in many states. For example, in Massachusetts drivers under 18 can’t drive anyone else under 18 (except siblings) for the first 6 months. This is probably a good practice, but it almost certainly decreases the motivation of some kids to go through all the work of getting their license. After all, this is an age group pretty notorious for being driven by instant gratification.

Additionally, with high costs for insurance and vehicles, many parents may not be as excited for their kids to get their license. Without parental support, it can be really hard to navigate the whole process, and if a parent starts to think it may be easier to keep driving you than to pay for insurance, this could further decrease the numbers. With younger generations spending more time living at home, parental support is an increasing factor. Anyone attempting to get a license has a certain reliance on the willingness of others to teach them to drive and help them practice, so the “too busy” reason may actually be driven just as much by the business of those around you as your own business. You can be unemployed and have plenty of time to practice driving, but if no one around you has time to take you out, it won’t help.

Finally, there may be a small influence of new technology. With things like Uber making rides more available more quickly and Amazon delivering more things to your door, it may actually be easier to function without a license than it was 10 years ago. Even the general shift from “have to go out to do anything fun” to “can stay home and entertain myself on line” may account for a bit of the decreased enthusiasm for getting licensed to drive. For any one person it’s doubtful that’s the whole reason, but for a few it may be enough to tip the scales.

It will be interesting to see if this corrects itself at some point…will those not getting their license at 18 now get it at 28 instead, or will they forego it entirely? The initial survey most (about 2/3rds) still plan on pursuing one at some point, but whether or not that happens remains to be seen.

5 thoughts on “Baby, You Can’t Drive My Car

  1. So much to comment on here. First, I had the same question and asked the director of driver licensing for NH that very question about 1 year ago. The numbers are down. It looks like NH peaked for those born in 1991 and it has been dropping since. He could not verify whether that correlated with a drop in the eligible pool.

    NH does have the same restriction as MA pertaining to passengers. Also, as you know, NH can suspend for any violation under age 20. These are commonly known as graduated license laws and there are variations nationwide. You also can’t drive past 1 AM if you are under 18. However, when youthful offenders come in for the license loss, life as they know it will end if they are suspended (of course, mom and dad don’t want to have to drive them around).

    Some of your other elements discouraging obtaining a license go to the whole “adulting” thing. Insurance, maintenance, car payments are all things that young people may want to postpone. However, delaying getting a license is not necessarily a good idea. Your grandfather didn’t get a license until after he was married and his driving instincts were never good. His excuse for not getting a license? His family didn’t own a car (late 1930’s).

    It will be fascinating to watch the evolution of driving laws with the advent of driverless cars.


  2. Side note: Fewer people every year, especially fewer females, know how to drive a standard.

    The effects you note above can also have a cumulative effect, of greater barriers mixed with reduced incentives. Yet I think there is an invisible one, p0ersonal devices. People still desire personal contact and to go places to see others live, but not the daily, even hourly pressure. The alternatives to driving used to be walking, shared telephone with your family overhearing, or walking to the bus, even in bad weather. If it’s bad weather and you are lonely and you don’t have a license now, you can just group text, skype, etc. Or you can shell out thousands for driver’s ed and insurance.


  3. re Avi’s side note: My son-in-law paid steeply for valet parking at a downtown Nashville hotel recently. They were able to park his car, but he had to retrieve it himself the next day because they had no one on duty that could drive a standard.

    As for the rest, costs and risk aversion play a role, I think. My kids all got their licenses at 15 (without having to take driver’s ed) and they had to share an ugly, prone-to-break-down ancient tank for a while. Yes, I was *that* parent. In the early 90s, they drove a 1981 diesel Cadillac. Oh… the pain and anguish kept me quite entertained. The little bit they paid toward fuel and insurance couldn’t be had now either as those types of jobs are either no longer available or not as easy to get. They learned a little bit about budgeting and lot more about vehicle repair and maintenance.

    However, I wouldn’t do the same thing now. The one precaution I took to offset the dangers of being stranded was that they had a shared cell phone too (before texting was possible). I’m not sure that’s enough of a precaution now. I fully support my son-in-law’s newly established rule that his children will know how to drive a standard before they can get a license. I also think they need defensive and evasive driving courses. I mean, who doesn’t want a 16 year old to know how to do a J turn?

    I wonder how much of the phenomenon of helicopter parenting is due to overly-involved grandparents. While my children set boundaries for me early and often where their children were concerned, I find myself much more concerned about my grandchildren’s safety than I was about their parents’. I don’t distrust my children, but I found myself voicing concern about the (very short) walk from the bus stop to their house recently. Fortunately, I stifled myself before recommending that they just drive them to & from school. I did drive to the bus stop to pick them up a few times when I last visited… I am a wimp and a pushover. They will be wearing a helmet learning those J turns.


  4. Texas might be low for the same reason I suspect Minnesota skews low relative to the other Upper Midwest states – one (or more) large urban areas with a low ratio of drivers overwhelm the less populated rural areas with higher ratios.


  5. Pingback: Baby, You Can’t Drive My Car: Part 2 | graph paper diaries

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