The Decline of the Driver's License

Fewer people of all ages are getting them, and it’s not quite clear why.

Toby Talbot / AP

Remember how, in Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher fails her driver’s test after nearly killing a biker and scraping her car alongside several parked cars? And then how she asks, “Do you think I should write them a note?” as she drives away? And then how, at the climax of the movie, her friend Tai (Brittany Murphy) calls her “a virgin who can’t drive” and it is just the harshest burn?

Well, that was a fictionalized version of the ‘90s, and this is now. Things are different.

Young people are not getting driver’s licenses so much anymore. In fact, no one is. According to a new study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the percentage of people with a driver’s license decreased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. For people aged 16 to 44, that percentage has been decreasing steadily  since 1983.

It’s especially pronounced for the teens—in 2014, just 24.5 percent of 16-year-olds had a license, a 47-percent decrease from 1983, when 46.2 percent did. And at the tail end of the teen years, 69 percent of 19-year-olds had licenses in 2014, compared to 87.3 percent in 1983, a 21-percent decrease.

Among young adults, the declines are smaller but still significant—16.4 percent fewer 20-to-24-year-olds had licenses in 2014 than in 1983, 11 percent fewer 25-to-29-year-olds, 10.3 percent fewer 30-to-34-year-olds, and 7.4 percent fewer 35-to-39-year-olds. For people between 40 and 54, the declines were small, less than 5 percent.

Above 55, the story’s a little different. Older adults were more likely to have a driver’s license in 2014 than in 1983—in the case of those 70 and older, 43.6 percent more likely. But these age groups, too, saw a modest decline from 2011 to 2014.

The researchers didn’t look into what the reasons for this decline might be, but in an earlier study, they surveyed young adults ages 18 to 39 without driver’s licenses about why they don’t have them. The top three reasons were: “too busy or not enough time to get a driver’s license” (37 percent), “owning and maintaining a vehicle is too expensive”(32 percent), and “able to get transportation from others” (31 percent).

Another reason that springs to mind is that more people are living in cities and using public transportation. But in the survey, only 17 percent said their reason for not having a license was that they preferred public transit.

In other studies, Sivak and Schoettle suggest that driving in general may have already peaked in the United States. The total distance driven per person in the U.S. was at its highest in 2004, and by 2013, it had decreased by 9 percent. In part, this may be because people are traveling less in general: Comparing 2004 to 2014, people spent less time traveling to places to eat and drink, to buy goods and services, to work, school, and to leisure activities. The ease of Amazon, the rise of teleworking, and the endless entertainment provided by the Internet may be leading people to stay home more, but it’s hard to say—there’s no research available that explains these trends. A New York Times article from 2013 mentions unemployment as a reason for young people buying fewer cars, but as Jordan Weissman noted in The Atlantic that same year, downward trends in driving started before the recession.

Maybe it’s just that people today have more things they’d rather do than practice parallel parking between traffic cones. Or maybe it’s because the photos on those plastic cards are almost never flattering. Sivak and Schoettle are hoping to soon study possible reasons for the drop in driver’s licenses. But regardless of the cause, it seems that if you want to insult a teen today, shaming them for not being able to operate a motor vehicle might not be the way to go.