Some young car enthusiasts remain today, but American teens have as a whole moved on. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the percentage of American 16-year-olds with driver’s licenses was roughly 25 percent in 2014, a steep drop from about 46 percent in 1983. Older Americans who gather at old hot-rod and antique car shows lament how their offspring show no interest in their hobby, and car makers and dealers fret over how to sell to an increasingly elusive teen market. What’s changed? The answers are technological, legal, and cultural.
One thing is clear: It is harder to get a car these days. Thanks to technological advances, the cars of the last few decades are better made and last longer—and thus cost more, even when they’re used. And the old strategy of buying a “junker,” a car in bad shape, and then replacing a faulty alternator with a cheap scrap-yard part is practically impossible to do on one’s own; repairs in the digital age require more skill and equipment than most teens have. And rising costs meant that poorer teens—especially African American and Hispanic teens—have been more likely to do without. A half-dozen years ago, about a quarter of 16-to-18-year-olds from households earning less than $20,000 per year had driver’s licenses, compared to the three-quarters of their counterparts in households earning over $100,000 who had licenses.
Vehicles aside, getting a license in the first place is harder than it used to be. Once, it was a rite of passage to turn 16 and become a full-fledged driver. But since the 1970s, psychologists, safety officials, and legal scholars have campaigned to raise the age requirement to 17 or 18, with more limited permits provided for younger ages. They’ve argued that younger age requirements are a holdover from a time when America was more rural and families needed their teen children, sometimes as young as 14, to drive vehicles on the family farm. These experts amassed great troves of data showing that 16-year-olds, especially boys, lacked the maturity to drive powerful machines on the public road, noting that 16- and- 17-year-olds were responsible for far more crashes than were even their 18- or 19-year-old counterparts.
By the mid-1990s, most states were adopting the so-called Graduated Driver’s License, a multi-step licensing process for young drivers that includes complicated rules about when and where 16-year-olds can drive. The requirement of adult-supervised behind-the-wheel training, prohibitions against night driving, and special penalties for infractions, as well as the rising costs of driver-education classes (which have been dropped from some high-school curricula in recent years) have all led many young people to delay learning to drive until they turned 18 and were free of these restrictions. This new legal regime brings America more in line with many other industrial nations, where the age of 18 has long been the norm.