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."


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    When you are sitting in the traffic jam going nowhere fast the insurance a kings ransom cameras watching your every move and punitive penalties for even the slightest transgression of driving parking a nightmare servicing costs a fortune (you try servicing a modern car it's impossible)
    You reach a point where you think to yourself do I really need this ?
    Nah !

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Glad they don't go for the politically correct reason of being "green" when not using cars.
    With the right fuel, cars could be green enough (used cooking oil e.g.).

    And why can't you cusomise modern cars anymore? You can indeed as long as you get safety relevant modifications registered in the logbook/MOT...

    But it also shows: Electronic communication can make working life easier as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Motoring is beyond the reach of most young people, unless they have wealthy parents or they are prepared to risk the danger of driving as a named driver. Increasingly the insurers are not prepared to accept named drivers on parents policies unless they meet ever more limiting restrictions.

    Motoring is becoming even for adults 30+ on clean licenses a financial burdon bordering on the rediculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    For rural users then rising insurance and fewer law enforcement officers will mean people drive shambling wrecks without a permit. For urban dwellers then public transport will pick up the rest. Fewer jobs in US will require a permit e.g. hauliers - more cargo flies or is shipped. All equal less incentive to drive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @mupupname2 and BUN - It states "those who grew up in the 50's and 60's" ie were teenagers then but now adults you fools, are you actually intellegent enough to read this article?

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    They should try motorcycling - far more fun & sexier than driving and you don't get stuck in jams. It is also cheaper and more fuel efficient than driving. With modern thermals and fabrics you don't even need to worry about getting cold and wet anymore - just watch out for those lunatic motorists in their metal cages fiddling with their mobiles, sat navs etc and not looking what they are doing

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    For the hard of thinking, #80 and #81 etc: it wasn't internet use in the 50s and 60s it was the CURRENT attitude of the generation that grew up in those decades!!! It just high-lights the differing priorities of the generations,,.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.


    I think what they're trying to say is that 15% of those who were teens in the 1950s/60s would, today, choose internet access in preference to their own car.

    It's not really a fair comparison, though, since the lifestyle of your average middle-aged adult is highly unlikely to mirror that of the typical teenager anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Coming from London, and never really needing a car, I never knew the joy of driving on the open road until I spent some time in America, I knew several techies out in Palo Alto who placed more value in driving down the coast than sitting on their computers all day

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    To those who think the survery is wrong:

    I think they mean they asked those who were of that generation, i.e. people around 60ish, give or take.

    But it doesn't surprise me that interest in cars is dropping, have you seen them? They have no style what-so-ever! What would you rather have, a 1950's (Miller-Meteor) cadillac or a 1990's Ford Fiesta?
    I wish I could of grown up in that era...

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The word "mom" is a direct quote from an American talking, so why would the quote be corrupted into something other than what the person said?? Also, the word "gas" is used so that those of us from the United States who are used to the word "petrol" will know what is going on given that this article is about the United States, and reported from DC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Well I'm in trouble. Aged 14 and 15, my boys are into both Facebook and cars. They are both counting the days until they can get their licenses! What a pair of dinosaurs.
    Incidentally, I fully agree with Badnewsbear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Surely they're not starting to believe the environmental clap trap?

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Doing a Ben Goldacre here, but how could 15% of American teens in the 50s and 60s choose the internet over car ownership? Please use stats correctly otherwise they can be extremely misleading.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    "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 was 15% among the generation that grew up in the 1950s and 60s - seen as the golden age of American motoring."

    Errr... Internet access in the 50's and 60s? Shurely shome mishtake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    71 MajorityWorld Steve

    I assume this article was actually written for the American "edition" of the Magazine. See here:


    It would be useful if they could make that clearer from the outset though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    #71 MajorityWorld Steve

    Did you mean to post;

    Excuse me, BBC, is this an English/UK based web site?
    'Gas' 'mom' - can 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.

    P.S. Teens using cars less in the U.S.A is a good thing, why have you not published the driving deaths statistics? They are horrendous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Easy answer - the cost of driving in the US with fuel and insurance. Besides this is the issue of unemployment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Well, MajorityWorld Steve (ever heard of the tyranny of the majority?) perhaps that's because our road death stats in the UK are actually amongst the lowest in the world. I suppose road deaths caused by teens may be lower in Mongolia, but I'm not sure that country, though no doubt populated by very nice people, has too much else to commend it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    For many of us driving is just a habit.
    We drive because we couldn't wait to get a car and haven't really thought about it afterwards.
    Once someone is in a car you won't get them out of it, but today's Million plus unemployed youngsters might see things differently and change our Country.


Page 7 of 11



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.