A rising percentage of Americans are skipping the time-honored tradition of obtaining and holding driver’s licenses.
Researchers from the University of Michigan found a decrease in the proportion of US citizens who hold driver’s licenses between 2011 and 2014. It would be tempting to think it’s young Americans that are no longer interested in driving, but it’s not just teenagers. It’s everyone. Data culled from the Federal Highway Administration shows decreases across all age groups.
It’s old news to point the finger at teenagers eschewing driver’s licenses. For people aged 16 to 44, that percentage has been decreasing steadily since 1983. So the findings of the University of Michigan study came as no surprise in this area. Among 20-to-24-year-olds, the proportion dropped 3 percent in the latest three-year span for which data is available, from 79.7 percent to 76.7 percent.
Surprising Discovery About Middle-Aged Driver’s Licenses
What was remarkable was the percentage of middle-aged and senior citizens that declined. Their numbers showed a consistent rise over a quarter-century until 2008. Among those ages 60 to 64, the percentage of Americans with licenses declined by 3 percent. Among those 30 to 34, the percentage declined 4.4 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. This is not surprising. For this age group, a driver’s license symbolizes freedom and mobility. This may be why there is a rush to create technology to aid these drivers to stay behind the wheel longer.
No Analysis Of The Decline In Driver’s Licenses
The paper’s authors, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, didn’t analyze the factors driving the trends, leaving us to speculate as to the reasons.
For teenage drivers, extensive research indicates the reasons. The top three reasons given 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).
The reasons behind the declines among older drivers are more complex and varied.
Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft might be obvious contributors. General Motors thinks so. The company unveiled Maven, a new ride-sharing brand, and invested $500 million in Lyft and about $39 million in Sidecar only weeks ago.
Another possible reason may have to do with the economy. Since the Great Recession, a lower percentage of Americans are seeking employment resulting in fewer miles driven for work. Even as the unemployment rate has fallen to 5 percent, the percentage of Americans seeking employment has decreased 3.2 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ civilian labor force participation rate.
Another reason may be more people are living in cities and using public transportation. Still other reasons include a rise in telecommuting, and the advent of ride-sharing services like ZipCar. Tighter restrictions on young drivers haven’t helped either.
The introduction of driverless cars, which some industry experts say will be on roads within the next decade, promises to further reduce the share of Americans who feel the need to get a driver’s license.
Automakers Should Be Worried By Drop In Driver’s Licenses
You’d think all of this would be bad news for automakers and the gasoline industry. While the implications of fewer drivers seeking licenses might worry automakers over the long term, the decline in interest in licenses hasn’t hurt interest in owning cars. Car dealers are coming off of their biggest sales year ever. Units sold reached 17.47 million in 2015. In fact, dealers increased sales for six consecutive years, the first time in US history that’s happened.
Automakers also benefit from Americans traveling more miles than ever. With a growing economy and cheap gas prices, the number of vehicle miles traveled increased “substantially” in 2015, according to the Federal Highway Administration, reaching an estimated 3.06 trillion miles.
The increase in driving miles has had some negative consequences, too. The 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that drivers wasted more than 3 billion gallons of fuel and spent 7 billion extra hours sitting in traffic last year, at a cost of $160 billion, or $960 per commuter.
On balance, the data present a perplexing picture. There is no clear-cut hypothesis for what fewer people applying for driver’s licenses means. One thing is certain, though. Our listeners remain steadfastly committed to keeping their driver’s licenses as long as possible.