Once upon a time, teenagers pined for the day they’d receive their drivers’ licenses; it was a right of passage. Today, a study by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor finds that teen drivers would rather navigate the information superhighway than the interstate highway system. Simply put, U.S. teens of driving age prefer having a smartphone in hand rather than a steering wheel.
Licensing rates down
According to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, a higher proportion of U.S. teenagers than ever are waiting longer to get a driver’s license. The trend toward fewer licenses among the teenage demographic has been seen in other countries as well, from Canada and Great Britain to Germany, Japan, Sweden, Norway, South Korea and more.
By comparison, license rates among older drivers have increased as the Baby Boom generation settles into their elder years.
Reducing the need for physical presence
Michael Sivak, head of the human factors group within the university’s Transportation Research Institute, released a statement regarding the study findings. In his statement, Sivak speculated that observed trends were consistent with the ways in which Internet use, smartphones and online social media like Facebook and Twitter have changed interpersonal communication.
“Countries with higher proportions of Internet users were associated with lower licensure rates among young persons, which is consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact among young people,” said Sivak.
More numbers on young drivers
In 1983, approximately one-third of all licensed drivers in the U.S. were younger than 30. The Michigan study notes that that number has decreased to 22 percent today. Nearly 30 years ago, 94 percent of Americans in their 20s had a driver’s license. According to the study, that number declined to 84 percent in 2008.
Much in line with Sivak’s statement, senior analyst Rebecca Lindland of research company IHS Automotive in Detroit notes that society is changing.
“In every other generation, kids had to leave the house to see their friends and now you can do all that online,” she said. “A car is no longer required.”
The job and car deficit
While automotive advertising executives will no doubt continue attacking the issue head-on today, there’s a distinct possibility that the need for automobiles won’t return in earnest until the job market for young people rebounds. Many college graduates are returning to live with their parents because they are unemployed or underemployed. Once Generation Y – which accounts for nearly 27 percent of the total U.S. population, according to The New Republic – beats back unemployment, the demand for vehicles will change.
Urban living, fewer cars
Predicted trends in U.S. household structure may continue to reduce the need for automobiles, however. Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institute told Technology Tell that nearly 88 percent of household growth through 2040 will predominantly be singles or childless couples. Such people are often happy living in urban centers and using public transportation when it is necessary and safe to do so. Yet demand for living quarters in such neighborhoods will increase, which raises rent considerably. The need to commute could return as rents rise above what some can comfortably pay.