As Youth Driver Licensing Dips Again, A Focus on the Millennials

Tony Dutzik is senior policy analyst with Frontier Group, a non-profit public policy think tank.

In 2011, the percentage of 16-to-24 year olds with driver’s licenses dipped to another new low. Just over two-thirds of these young Americans (67 percent) were licensed to drive in 2011, based on the latest licensing data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and population estimates from the Census Bureau. That’s the lowest percentage since at least 1963.

Source: Licensing statistics from the FHWA’s Highway Statistics series of reports and population estimates from the Census Bureau.

There has been lots of speculation about why fewer young people are getting driver’s licenses (and why even those who do have them seem to be driving less). Is it the economy, which has been particularly brutal for young people lately? Is it the rising cost of gas? Is it the tougher driver’s licensing laws that make it more expensive and difficult to get a license? Is it because young people are too busy cuddling with their iPhones and iPads to get behind the wheel?

There are arguments to be made for any and all of these explanations. But less often is the question asked: Why does it matter that young people just aren’t that into cars anymore?

One important reason it matters is because today’s young people are tomorrow’s main users of our transportation systems. If the useful life of the transportation infrastructure we build today — the highways, light rail lines, bike lanes and sidewalks — is roughly 40 years, that neatly envelops the peak earning and daily travel years of people currently in their late teens and early twenties. If fewer Millennials are driving, that should influence our choices about how we invest in transportation.

The transportation behaviors of the Millennials are doubly important because there are so many of them. That youth driving should be on the decline now is remarkable since there are now more teenagers and young adults in America than there have been in years. Since 1992, America has gained more than 7.3 million 16-to-24 year olds — an increase of 22 percent — but has added only 1.2 million 16-to-24 year old drivers.

Source: Licensing statistics from the FHWA’s Highway Statistics series of reports and population estimates from the Census Bureau.

The key question for anyone thinking about the future of the transportation system is whether today’s young people will continue to drive less as they get older and move on to new stages of life. The answer to that question doesn’t just depend on external factors such as the economy or even the preferences of the Millennials themselves. It also depends on public policy — specifically, the degree to which we are able to transform our transportation policy infrastructure from an effective machine for the building of lots of new roads into an efficient provider of the mix of flexible transportation options that Americans of all generations, but especially young Americans, now crave.

Regardless of the reasons for the recent drop in youth driving, the fact that young people are driving less provides a golden opportunity to rethink our transportation and development policies. It’s time for decision-makers at all levels to take advantage of that opportunity.

  • Joe R.

    If my personal experience is typical, I think many of those who don’t get licenses by age 24 won’t bother to get them, ever. Usually once you learn you can live well without a license or a car, the desire to get either quickly fades. I remember being on the fence about getting a license at a time when most of my peers were driving (this was in the early 1980s). In the end I realized I was able to do 99% of what I wanted to do without a license, so why jump through the hoops to get one? It didn’t make any sense. By my 30s, I was so adamantly against the idea I wouldn’t have gotten a license if someone had paid me. I think the millennials will be the first generation since my grandfather’s generation to realize driving and owning a car is a want, not a need. My grandfather never got a license, either. Neither did most of the people from his generation. Fewer licensed drivers will fuel more demand for public transit and biking. This in turn might well encourage many licensed drivers to give up their cars, further fueling growth of transportation alternatives.

  • reality check

    I support fewer people using cars on our roadways and have never own a car in my life, but not getting a license seems as silly as not learning how to ride a bike.

    I think the reason for fewer licenses is that cars are just not as cool as they used to be, and kids need to be able to pay for their $100/month I-phone habit.

  • Joe R.

    Plenty of good reasons to not bother getting a license, starting with the fact that it’s a considerable investment of time and money. If you don’t know anyone willing to give you driving lessons, you need to pay for driving school. Even if you do, it’s only right to pay anyone teaching you for at least the gas you’re using, and maybe a little extra for their time. If a person never has an intention of getting a car, and rarely needs to go places reachable only by car, I’m not seeing much point in getting a driver’s license. Most states have non-driver ID cards which are accepted for ID as readily as driver’s licenses.

    I do agree there’s probably not much reason to not learn how to ride a bike. In fact, being able to ride a bike well was one thing which convinced me I didn’t need a driver’s license.

  • davistrain

    I grew up in the days of 25-cents-a-gallon gasoline, when you could buy a usable car for $100-$200 and keep in running with wrecking yard parts. No smog checks and no computer modules either. If you did need to buy a new part, Sears and Pep Boys would have what you needed, at prices about a tenth or twentieth of what the analogous part would cost today. The entry level for driving is higher today.

  • Stephen

    In California, you have to be over 18 years old to get a driver’s license now. No surprise the number has been falling over the past few years.

  • Colette

    Is anyone bothering to ask the Millennials directly why they are not getting a driver’s license? I see a lot of talk about them from others? Which age group(s) are looking at this, and making their tentative conclusions? I think we also need to factor in where these young adults live, a car is pretty much a staple in rural, and many sprawling suburban areas.

  • Jason Knight

    Do any of you know what age you have to be to get a driver license in vancouver? if so and you could let me know, that would be nice. Thanks!

  • wrong busses and rail and light rail expansion are taking over suburban areas millienials like me dont have the money to drive its to expensive and the convience of these expanded services make taking it worth it

  • bubbles@gmail.com

    This is the smartest generation realizing pros and cons of driving does not make it worthwhile avg vehicle cost 10,000 per year and up liability to someone else using their car is not a good choice public transportation even hiring a driver is cheaper and less risky errors driving can be criminal add legal issues not worth driving

  • julia18888888

    no its 16 in CA.

    Its 18 to be able to take the behind the wheel driving test to get the license without behind the wheel lessons

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