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Study: Folks Under 55 Are Increasingly Less Likely To Drive

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It may be a cliche, but it's one that's been confirmed by study after study: younger Americans just aren't that interested in driving. Still don't believe it? The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has additional data to support the claim.

Researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle recently took a long, hard look at U.S. driver's licence data from 1983 to 2014. What they discovered is that, over those 31 years, the percentage of young people with driver's licenses steadily fell. 

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The data came from the Federal Highway Administration, and it suggests some interesting trends. Notably, the percentage of licensed drivers has fallen among Americans as old as 54 -- often precipitously. Here are some of the study's bigger bulletpoints:

  • In 1983, 68.9 percent of 17-year-olds had driver's licenses. In 2014, just 44.9 percent did.
  • In 1983, 91.8 percent of Americans 20-24 had driver's licenses. In 2014, the number had fallen to 76.7 percent.
  • In 1983, the people most likely to drive were between 30 and 34, with 96.5 percent having licenses. In 2014, just 86.6 percent of 30-to-34-year-olds were licensed drivers.

Those kinds of declines continue until the 55-59 group. Sivak and Schoettle note that 88.2 percent of that demographic had licenses in 1983, while 91.8 percent did in 2014. 

The biggest uptick can be seen among seniors. In 1983, just 55 percent of driver's 70 and older had driver's licenses, but by 2014, the figure had surged to 79 percent.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

As usual, Sivak and Schoettle are careful to avoid hypothesizing about why stats trend in particular ways, unless they've got data to back up their theories. That said, we've seen enough reports like this to suggest at least a few possibilities.

As for why more older people are driving, that could have everything to do with the fact that those 70 and older in 2014 grew up behind the wheel. Back in 1983, those people were around 40 years old, and 92.2 percent of them had licenses. By 2014, quite a few of those same folks had given up their licenses, but 79 percent were still eager to drive. Advances in medical care and health sciences have helped them do so safely.

At the other end of the scale, younger drivers appear to have far fewer reasons to drive nowadays. Among the rationale we've seen for them eschewing licenses in the past are:

  • Social media, which has reduced young people's need for face-to-face interaction with their peers. (If you've ever seen kids texting across the living room to one another, you know the truth of that statement.)
  • Graduated driving laws, which have forced young people to delay getting their licenses and may be encouraging some to skip the process altogether.
  • The cost of car ownership, which can be a big turn-off to folks at the start of their careers.
  • Mass transit and car-sharing (including Zipcar and Uber), which are available to many young people attracted to urban areas.
  • Eco-friendly ideals, which have caused some young people to seek out greener means of transportation.

As a reader of this car blog, chances are pretty good that you've got a license of your own. Have you ever considered giving it up, though? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you'd like to read an abstract of Sivak and Schoettle's study, entitled "Recent Decreases in the Proportion of Persons with a Driver’s License across All Age Groups ", you'll find a PDF here.

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