In the last decade "the proportion of 16-year-olds nationwide who hold driver's licenses has dropped from nearly half to less than one-third," according to the Federal Highway Administration. These numbers are surprising: "It's a big change in a major American ritual of driving as early as possible," Michael T. Marsden, an expert on car culture, said. So what can account for the fact that what has become a rite of passage and a symbol of freedom in America seems to be losing importance among America's youth? Is it concern about global warming, a kind of desire to abstain from carbon intensive activities until alternative fuel vehicles become more prevalent? Or is it that, increasingly aware of America's obesity epidemic, our youth have en masse begun riding their bikes, walking and taking mass transit? Unfortunately, the real reasons are probably somewhat more banal. See what they are after the fold.One major change influencing the trend has been that "the number of school systems offering the [driver's education] program has plummeted to about 20 percent today, from 90 percent in the 1980s," dramatically raising the cost as students are forced to go to commercial driving academies.
Another factor is the rising cost of insurance. "Where parents used to be able to add their young drivers to their policies for a nominal charge, it now costs 80 percent to 100 percent more to add a 16-year-old to a family's auto policy." Teenagers have always been the most likely to be involved in accidents, but insurance companies, perhaps wary of rising costs from natural disasters, have begun raising rates to better match the risk.
Additionally, "Graduated driver-licensing laws, which delay awarding a full license until a teenager spends time with a parent or driving under certain conditions, are also keeping down the number of 16-year-olds on the road." These laws have also "helped reduce the number of fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers by about 11 percent."
One would hope that, increasingly, teens are finding ways to get around that don't involve automobiles, but it turns out that the final reason fewer youths are getting their licenses is that parents seem happy to drive them around, "and pastimes like surfing the Web keep them indoors and glued to computers." Hmm. So much for dealing with the obesity epidemic.
In other words, what we're seeing isn't a shift in our car culture, rather certain factors--higher costs for driving, an economic downturn, etc.--are changing when youths enter that car culture as drivers. In the meantime, teens simply hitch rides or spend more time indoors. Perhaps in ten years we'll be reading an article describing the surprising drop in vehicle miles traveled, and marvel at the fundamental change in our culture of mobility, from a vehicle-centric one, to one centered on public forms of transit that exist on a human scale.