The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why aren’t young people getting drivers’ licenses? Too much hassle!

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Ever since the recession hit in 2007, Americans have been driving less and less. And, as we've discussed before, a big chunk of that decline has been due to the fact that kids these days don't seem to drive as much as their parents did.

Case in point: Back in 1983, about 87 percent of 19-year-olds had drivers' licenses. But in 2010, only 69.5 percent did.

So why the decline? Well, we could always just ask the young folks. And that's exactly what Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute have done in an interesting new survey.

The researchers found that about 15.3 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 to 39 now gets by without a license, a big increase from past years. And, within that group, they asked 619 people their primary reason for not owning one. Here were the answers:

--37 percent said they were either too busy or didn't have the time to get a license.
--32 percent said that owning and maintaining a vehicle was just too expensive.
--31 percent said they could hitch a ride with someone else if needed.
--22 percent said they'd rather walk or bike.
--17 percent said they'd rather use public transportation.
--9 percent said they were worried about driving's effects on the environment.
--8 percent said they could work or communicate online.
--7 percent cited disability or medical problems as their main reason.

That jibes with other evidence. One recent survey from AAA found that just over half of teenagers get a license by the age of 18, a big drop from the past: "Some teens don’t bother because they have no access to a car; being licensed no longer holds the social status it once did for many young people; there are other ways to get where they want to go; and the cost of gas and auto insurance are too high."

Now, to be sure, this is still a distinct minority of Americans. As noted above, about 84.7 percent of young Americans aged 19 to 39 do own a drivers' license. And, what's more, about two-thirds of the non-licensed respondents told Schoettle and Sivak that they expected to get a license "within the next five years." (Probably.)

Still, the number of young non-drivers in the United States has been rising steadily, a trend that has implications for everything from transportation policy to future auto sales. And this survey offers some clues as to why — owning a car seems to be more of a hassle, while alternatives (from biking to public transit to telecommuting) are becoming more popular.

Further reading:

-- Why aren't younger Americans driving anymore?

-- Note that state regulations on teen driving have been getting stricter in recent years, and the latest transportation bill from Congress will make those rules even more stringent. So there's more context on the "hassle" angle.

-- On the "cost" front, here's some evidence that growing student-loan burdens are making it harder for young Americans to afford automobiles.