Why are US teenagers driving less?

American Graffiti The kid with the coolest car ruled high school in mythical Fifties America

American teenagers are taking to the road in fewer numbers than ever before. What's behind this trend and does it mean the end of the car as adolescent status symbol and rite of passage?

If Ferris Bueller had a day off now, would he spend it on Facebook?

Recent research suggests many young Americans prefer to spend their money and time chatting to their friends online, as opposed to the more traditional pastime of cruising around in cars.

For the high school students in films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and American Graffiti, cars were the ultimate expression of individuality and personal freedom - just as they have been for generations of Americans.

"It was a rite of passage and something to look forward to. You were only one of the cool kids if you drove and had your own vehicle," says Kristin Nevels, of the American Automobile Association.

Keith Martin, editor of Sportscar Market magazine, puts it more poetically: "Kids in the 50s and 60s wanted a set of wheels and they wanted a set of sexy wheels.

"It goes back to the the Wild West, when you got your first horse. You don't have to sit in your mom and dad's buggy any more. You have personal mobility."

'Act of rebellion'

But with money tight in many households, and the cost of gas and insurance soaring, some youngsters are having to choose between buying a car and owning the latest smartphone or tablet.

Start Quote

There is a great deal of pathos in America's love affair with the car and the open road as a symbol of freedom”

End Quote Dan Neil Wall Street Journal

In a survey to be published later this year by Gartner, 46% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they would choose internet access over owning their own car. The figure is 15% among the baby boom generation, the people that grew up in the 1950s and 60s - seen as the golden age of American motoring.

Wally Neil, a 25-year-old wholefood salesman, from Raleigh North Carolina, was determined to stand out from the crowd by not getting a driving licence and a car as soon as he was old enough.

But it was a decision made easier by the fact that he could speak to his friends online and play games with them over the internet so did not feel he was missing out.

"We were all pretty closely connected, even before Facebook.

"So we were not driving to our friends' houses, there was the gaming network and all that. We were putting the car on the back burner.

"There is a lot to be said for the video game killing the need for a car for a lot of kids."

For Wally, whose father Dan is a motoring writer and sports car enthusiast, walking everywhere or taking the bus when he was a teenager, rather than learning to drive, was "an act of rebellion".

Tougher tests

But he still had to put up with the taunts of his friends, he says, who could not wait to get behind the wheel and thought public transport was "for losers".

"I was ridiculed a little bit in my peer group but I was also saving a lot of money at the time."

Ferris Bueller's Day Off Would today's Ferris Bueller be updating his Facebook status instead of riding round town?

There is no question that fewer teenagers are on the roads in the US.

In 1978, 50% of 16-year-olds had obtained their first driving licence. In 2008, according to the US Transportation Department, it was just 30%.

The number of those aged 19 and under with driving licences has also been in steady decline since its 1978 peak, when 11,989,000 had one. In 2010, it was 9,932,441, or 4.1% of American drivers.

In the UK, 683,273 teenagers have driving licences - just 1.85% of total licence holders, according to Department of Transport figures from September 2010.

But the decline in the US may have more to do with tougher tests and the introduction of graduated licences in many states, which force drivers aged under 16 to be accompanied by licensed drivers of 21 years and older, than the growth of social networking.

Regional variations

In recent years, the annual number of journeys being made by American drivers of all ages has declined significantly for the first time ever.

Car use began falling in 2007, when average petrol prices almost doubled to $4.12 a gallon, and the economy started its slide into recession.

But there are signs it is back on an upward trajectory and America remains a country dominated by the automobile.

Graph showing car use in the US

It has a higher number of cars per head of population than any other country in the world, apart from the tiny principality of Monaco.

"Vehicles will always be a popular mode of transportation in America. You have to take into consideration some places don't have access to mass transit. Cars are the only way some people can get around," says Kristin Nevels.

This makes driving an imperative in some rural states, where roughly twice as many teenagers are on the road than in major metropolitan areas.

Teenage driver Driving means freedom, for many teenagers

Nevertheless, Wally Neil's father Dan, a motoring writer for the Wall Street Journal, is convinced that "American youth have fallen out of love with automobiles" because of the rising cost of motoring and the fact that they are "living their lives online".

He refuses to get misty-eyed about the "golden age" of teenage driving, however.

"The sadder of the two generations may be the earlier one, who spent their teenage years driving aimlessly around, with the car at the centre of all their mating rituals, struggling to make sense of where they were, clearly associating their status with the kind of car they drive.

"There is a great deal of pathos in America's love affair with the car and the open road as a symbol of freedom.

"The road isn't free. There is a fantastic downside of life based around the automobile."

'Safety regulations'

Keith Martin, who has teenage children, in addition to a collection of 10 high-powered classic sports cars, says American's post-War "sense of self-confidence" found perfect expression in its automobiles, which were "noisy, sexy and stylish".

Today's teenagers still love fast cars but as fantasy objects, he argues. Driving is much less fun than it used to be because of increased traffic congestion and the fact that the kind of cars most people can afford are "utilitarian" and difficult to customise.

"Modern cars are impossible to work on without screwing up the safety regulations," he says.

But he adds: "Teenagers are finding their own way in a different world to the one we grew up in. They have different means of connecting. In the 50s and 60s jumping in the car was all they had."

Wally Neil thinks the American teenager's romance with the automobile is far from over: "I think it will come back. I just don't see any longevity in Facebook or Twitter."

He finally obtained a driving licence two years ago and says he has never looked back.

"I have moved close to work now but I still use my car to get here. It is just so good to have it now. I know the value of it to a tee."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Ok, we're in a recession, prices are up, income is down, more 18-24 yr olds are in college, there is more media exposure to the reasons for not burning gas like it's going out of fashion.

    It's hardly suprising that the number of 18-24yr olds driving is down.
    Not news. BBC, get rid of the journo who wrote this, you'll save some money !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    #51 David H Parry
    "Ya should have stuck to the horses... we'd still have icecaps, you wouldn't need a snorkel to visit Venice and the IQ of your presidents would be a tad higher without all the lead in the us foodchain from the gasolene!"

    I suggest you watch the excellent Frozen Planet. In it you will discover that we still very much have icecaps.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    There is one VERY IMPORTANT not mentioned in the article for the loss of car-love in American public: SPEED LIMITS!
    I doubt there were strict speed limits in 50s/60s and I've heard that driving was pure fun.
    Think about this: why should I buy a V8 muscle car when I can go no faster than a Toyota Yaris?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Excuse me - BBC - is this an english/UK based web site?
    'Gas' 'mom' - can't a contributor use the correct vocab for the main audience please? good job there was no honor or color in the trunk/hood/windsheild etc

    ps, teens going to cars less in US - good thing - why havent you published the driving deaths stats? They are horrendous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    51.David H Parry
    2 Hours ago
    Ya should have stuck to the horses... we'd still have icecaps, you wouldn't need a snorkel to visit Venice and the IQ of your presidents would be a tad higher without all the lead in the us foodchain from the gasolene!

    Oh Dear,

    Seems like another spoon fed, unquestioning brainwashed drone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    "If Ferris Bueller had a day off now, would he spend it on Facebook?" probably not - he would be a little too old

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    I've known many that got a license later(like me) if at all, and think it's from the reflexes/depth-perception weakening effect of using electronic screens a lot as kids. In all cases, we didn't trust our ability to not crash, and scorn wasn't enough of a goad to practice enough to get over our fear & improve -- only those forced by circumstances (like commuting to class/work) did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    In the '60's the three curses of our age had not been invented- Global wa---sorry, they now hedge bets with 'climate change', don't they? health & safety and the laptop. Kids did not have to feel overprivilaged or anti-social if they drove, and actually had to leave the house and discover the world for themselves. I'm one 64 year old whose happy to let others scramble for the moral high ground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    #61 Another poor little motorist picked on by the big, bad government... The reason for clamping down on motorists is not to raise revenue but due to the fact that a small minority of idiots result in stupidity behind the wheel being the leading cause of death for those under 25.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Motoring is now becoming unaffordable for the young, and less important than it once was. There are a whole range of ways to see and be seen without leaving your room.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Teenagers - build a kitcar - its unique to you, its cheaper and the insurance is very low. It's a no-brainer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Totally disagree with Wally's dad, I couldn't wait to get behind the wheel and drive around showing off and most of all exploring my sexuality. We were never lost or driving aimlessly, the whole concept of going out into the big world understanding adulthood came free, now you have kids who are not streetwise know nothing and rely on their parents to spoon feed them the latest gadgets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    It's because they are realising European cars are much better and they feel hurt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Considering the congestion on roads today and governments using trivial traffic offences as a means of raising revenue along with the extortionate tax on fuel and the prospect of road pricing driving is no longer a pleasure. Since you can now do almost everything via the net I endeavour to drive as little as possible. Bring on the virtual holiday!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Either they've got a better public transport system than us or daddy drives them everywhere or they're all shut-ins? None of the above seem likely to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Video games are now the best thing to spend your time on, especially games like modern warfare 3 and skyrim...

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I am not sure it is fuel prices. If you have an old Mustang you spend more time polishing it than driving it.

    Unfortunately my experience of American (and other) young adults involves locked up in your room on Facebook, texting at meal times and performing the tasks you need to live as quickly as possible

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I grew up in the 60s, in the country in MA, and though I didn't have much money, I DID have cars. My first cars were a 1963 Ford Falcon Futura convertible, replaced about 1970 with the first of 2 3-cylinder stroker Saabs. I was always a car snob in my way, because I didn't care about muscle, always preferring crisp handling to speed. I've never driven anything but a MANual. I hate automatics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    It is very difficult to do anything with a modern car to customise it. Insurance and fuel are expensive. Its sad but unexpected that mobility is in decline

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    One of the problems with this declining youth enthusiasm is that 'first cars /motorcycles' are where an interest in engineering can develop.
    Last week my lad paid through the nose for a headlight bulb (because he had it fitted by a garage) and he is the one who is considering a career in aerospace engineering!!


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