Fewer teens are getting their drivers' licenses.
A major rite of passage for teenagers just might become a thing of the past as fewer teens are getting their drivers' licenses.


I have a sixteen year old non-driver in my house. The reasons for his lack of a driver's license are varied and somewhat unique to his personal situation, but as his parent it's a mix of relief, worry and frustration. Waiting until he's older may make him a safer driver, but is it hampering his independence? I don't yet need to deal with clocking 60 supervised practice hours behind the wheel that's required for the graduated license program in our state, but it sure would be nice to have another driver in the house to run errands or help chauffeur his siblings.

It turns out we aren't alone in this predicament.

According to a new survey from the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan, the number of young drivers in the U.S. has been on the decline for the past three decades, with a sharp drop between 1996 and 2015: 86.3 percent of high school seniors had their driver's license in 1996, down to 71.5 percent in 2015. The reasons for this are varied, and not yet extensively studied, but an AAA Foundation survey holds likely clues:

Teenagers are having a harder time finding jobs, which means they can't afford a car or the regular maintenance required for one. Tougher graduated license requirements such as nighttime driving restrictions, passenger restrictions, and lengthy supervised driving hours may be seen as too much of a hassle, or for some kids, too difficult to find an available adult to practice with. Plus, it's a lot easier to find a ride these days, with Uber and Lyft widely available, and more cities investing in public transportation and bike sharing programs.

Related: How To Keep Your Teen Safe Online

From a safety standpoint, maybe this decline in teen drivers is a good thing. After all, 16 to 19-year-olds are nearly three times as likely as older drivers to be in a fatal car crash. But the graduated license requirements have made a big impact in reducing these numbers, so if some kids are skipping these requirements and just getting a license when these restrictions are lifted at 18, will these crash statistics go back up again? If most of these teens, like my son, plan on getting their licenses someday, just not now, is it just putting the risk of a dangerous accident off for later?

More than a safety impact, though, is the social impact. Already, it's more common for teenagers to socialize with their friends online or through social media instead of in-person. There are also more young adults living at home, or moving back home, for longer periods of time, and this same generation is marrying at later ages and having children in smaller numbers later in life. Independence is expensive after all, and the high cost of living in most areas of the country likely accounts for much of these trends. But is there a ripple effect? A societal shift delaying the usual steps to adulthood such as driving, working, moving out, starting a family?

There's a hesitance I notice in my kids, a so-far less urgent push for independence that I don't remember experiencing myself. At sixteen, I couldn't wait to get the heck of my parent's house and be on my own. I was certainly ready to drive, had my own car, a part time job, and no graduated license requirements to worry about. I was free! Or as free as a high school junior making minimum wage part-time at a bagel shop could be.

But, I don't think my situation was superior, or that delaying some aspects of adulthood - or skipping them altogether - is a bad thing, necessarily. There were plenty of situations I found myself in at 16 that I wasn't really mature enough to handle, some things I wish I had been more patient about.

Childhood is short, after all, and adulthood very (very) long. I still worry though, as I don't want him to wait too long to experience these things, and the realty is that being independent does require a terrifying leap from the nest at some point. When will that leap come and where will he leap to? I'm not sure.

As far as driving, I still plan on having my non-driving teen spend the time on supervised driving lessons with an experienced driver regardless of when and if he's finally ready, even if it is put off until he's 18 or older. And this may be a solution for young drivers across the board: New Jersey now requires all new drivers up to age 20 to have a period of supervised driving before getting a license, and the Governors' Highway Safety Association has also recommended that states extend their graduated license programs up to age 21, plus require driver's education and training for all new drivers.

I certainly want all of my kids to take that scary leap into independence and adulthood, whatever it looks like for them, but I don't see why they can't do it as safely and well-prepared as possible.