Green Wheels: Fewer Young People Are Driving. Here's Why.

The evidence is in, and it's not just my license-free 18-year-old daughter. The percentage of young people with licenses is definitely going down.

According to a University of Michigan survey, in '83 a third of all licensed drivers in the U.S. were under 30 (and 87 percent of 19-year-olds were driving). But today, "Only about 22 percent of drivers are twentysomethings or teenagers." Thirty years ago, half of all drivers were under 40; now less than 40 percent are.

Blame cell phones, which are replacing the need for face-to-face interaction. Michigan researcher Michael Sivak of the Transportation Research Institute says, "It is possible that the availability of virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact between young people. Furthermore, some young people feel that driving interferes with texting."

There are some positive aspects to this: Fewer drivers means fewer cars on the road, less congestion and reduced levels of local smog and climate emissions. Yah! But it seems a bit harsh that kids don't feel the need to actually see each other.

For answers, I went to Chuck Underwood, who hosts the show "America's Generations" on PBS and wrote the book The Generational Imperative. He calls himself a "generational study expert." Who better than him?

"For prior generations," he told me, "a driver's license meant maturity, freedom, independence, and privacy, especially on a date. Baby boomers, age 48 to 66 this year, and the older Silent Generation, age 67 to 85, came of age during the heyday of the American automobile in the 1950s and '60s and the construction of the interstate highway system. They watched variety show host Dinah Shore close her Saturday night TV show by singing "See the USA in your Chevrolet." Cars were spectacular, America was magical, Americans wanted to drive those new highways and see their beautiful country, and a driver's license was the ticket to all of that.

"Today things are different. Millennials are postponing the serious commitments of career, marriage, and parenting. Because we're in a golden era of anti-aging science and medicine, they know they're going to live well past 100, so their 20-something attitude towards all-things-adult is what's the rush? And wouldn't prior generations have loved that same opportunity?

"We have helicopter parents now. Soccer moms and NASCAR dads. Living with the folks in their 20s. And the environment as their most passionate cause. Who NEEDS to drive, who WANTS to drive?"


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