When I started driving, my folks planted me behind the wheel of a nearly unbreakable late-’70s Jeep Wagoneer. “The tank” got me to work, rock concerts, and parties. It got me through snowstorms that stranded lesser vehicles on the roadside. In a pinch, it could fit me, 10 of my friends, and a keg of beer in relative comfort (at least for the keg).
I miss the tank. Unlike our newer SUV, it would have barely suffered a scratch when my 16-year-old son hit a signpost. But I’m glad my kid, even without the tank to learn in, has taken to life behind the wheel and the freedom that comes with driving.
His experience, to say nothing of my own, is becoming less common. In 1981, the year I turned 16, 1.7 million Americans my age were licensed to drive. In 2019, the latest year for which the Federal Highway Administration has data, just over 1 million 16-year-olds had licenses. During the same period, the country’s population rose by roughly 100 million. Justin Fox described the situation succinctly in a 2020 Bloomberg News column: In 1984, nearly half of America’s 16-year-olds could drive legally; as of 2018, a quarter could.
The cause of the decline in teen driving is a matter of debate. In 2013, National Geographic‘s Marianne Lavelle noted the rise of virtual engagement as a substitute for face-to-face meetings and the increasing hassle and cost of driving. Another factor: Youth employment had declined, which meant fewer teens could afford the costs of owning a vehicle. “Paying for their own cars, gas, and insurance is hard if they can’t find a job,” a representative of the insurance industry’s Highway Loss Data Institute told Lavelle.
Meanwhile, cars have become more expensive due to new technology. “The new extras also make cars more expensive to repair,” which “drive[s] up car-insurance costs, another deterrent for many teens and 20-somethings,” Wall Street Journal reporter Adrienne Roberts noted in 2019.
At the same time, graduated driver licensing laws have spread across the country. Many of these laws require teenagers to spend a certain number of supervised hours behind the wheel and restrict the number of minors who can ride with them for a period after they get their licenses. These laws seem to have reduced highway risks, but they also make mobility less attractive. Why drive across town to visit friends if you can save money and trouble by chatting with them online?
Two years of pandemic restrictions could accelerate the drop in teen driving. Zoom gatherings have been normalized, and supply chain disruptions have driven up car prices. “Some used cars,” Business Insider‘s Tim Levin observed in February 2021, are “now worth thousands more than their new, hard-to-find -counterparts.”
That’s a shame, because the drop in adult work force participation restored employment opportunities for young people—at least, for those able to show up. The Biden administration even launched a pilot program that allows 18-year-olds to work as long-distance truckers to fill demand. Teenagers who can drive obviously have a head start in taking advantage of this situation.
My son is one of those teenagers, enjoying opportunities much like those my friends and I had at his age. He drives to his job at a supermarket, motors over to his classes at the community college, and hits the road to hang out with his buddies in ways recognizable to an older generation but less common in 2022. He and his friends will enter the world of adults with an important skill and an awareness of the freedom it allows. They will be able to travel, take jobs, and set up housing beyond the reach of mass transit and ride-share services.
I just wish I still had that old Wagoneer to see him through the next couple of years. But whatever he drives in the future, I hope it will be resistant to signposts.