The Decline of Car Culture

UMTRI: About 87 percent of 19-year-olds in 1983 had their licenses, but more than 30 years later, that percentage had dropped to 69 percent. Other teen driving groups have also declined: 18-year-olds fell from 80 percent in 1983 to 60 percent in 2014, 17-year-olds decreased from 69 percent to 45 percent, and 16-year-olds plummeted from 46 percent to 24 percent.

Cars used to represent freedom. Today WiFi does. The decline of young drivers is likely another reason the roads are getting safer.

Hat tip: @counternotions.

Addendum: Steven Kopits argues (youtube) that this has more to do with lack of employment of young people than with a change in culture.


Licensing is stupid. Then can drive without a license as long as they don't get caught, and if they are driving not to get caught that implies not crashing. What get rewarded gets done, just like ending comprehensive or collision coverage would do more to end crashes than any roadway or vehicle improvements could.

How safe is New Hamster?


Maybe we could ban seatbelts while we're at it.

In other words, Donald Trump is 1000% liar. Illegals are the best people in America! They need to be to avoid coming to the attention of law enforcement.

In the 1960s when I became a teenager, acquiring a car for a teenage driver was a trivial expense for most families. I got my first job at age 14; today that is illegal. Today I know lots of families with both working and welfare parents who claim not to be able even to afford driver education for their teens, much less a car. So in our state many teens have to wait until they're 18 to get a license. I think it's a barometer of the economy and of increasing regulation.

Good point, I never took driver's Ed, bought wheels at 15 from my own wages and insurance wasn't mandatory. That's late 80s but none of it happens today.

I started work at 15, working full time in the summers, and was working part time on nights and weekends by the time I was 17 (in the late 1980's). My sister, 7 years younger than me, could not legally do the work I did, by the time she was my age (mid 1990's). The local laws had changed and minors were restricted in working past 9 pm on a school night and restricted with how many hours they could work in total.

I had my drivers license and my own car at 15. My sister didn't get either until 18. Incentives matter.

"In the 1960s when I became a teenager, acquiring a car for a teenage driver was a trivial expense for most families."

Was it? The price of cars relative to people's wages is down, by a lot, since the 1960s. Even with the higher prices for insurance and gas, I'd think it's still more affordable now. The proportion of adults who own cars is up, and middle class families are more likely to own two cars.

I think it's due to culture. I remember the 1960s and cars then had a big novelty effect, it was only recently that car ownership had become so widespread. Teenage boys were fascinated by how to fix cars, much in the way computers fascinate the kids today. Today we're more likely to think "that's for Mexicans." Also, teenagers today are less social. If you aren't very social, you end up going to work to pay for your car and using your car to drive to work.

I paid $3,500 for my used Chevy Chevette in 1984 with 35,000 miles on it, Which according to the CPI calculator would be $8,100 today. So the purchase price isn't that far off a low end used car today. (Granted, I don't think they sale anything that low end today. 57 horsepower worth of hatchback glory. But for the time period it wasn't that bad a car for a teenager.)

The big difference was car quality. The car blew it's engine at just over 50K miles. I think I managed to get $1K in trade in for it, but still paid a much higher per mile cost than I would today in inflation adjusted dollars.

So, a teenager could get into a car cheaply, he just had to spend more time & money on maintenance to keep it going.

Apples to oranges. You should compare teen wages which are usually minimum. Are cars more affordable to minimum wage employees?

Driver education was supplied by my school system for a nominal fee (25$ I think). And cars for teens were often clunker hand-me-downs from older siblings, or bought from neighbors for a small price (like 100$).

Chasing Classic Cars has a limited life. I took my driver's test on my 16th birthday, the same day I got my first car (a GTO). I've always had a weakness for classic cars, especially sports cars. The only classic car I have owned was a Mercedes roadster ("roadster" being not very descriptive). Earlier this year (or maybe last fall), I was on my Saturday morning bike ride and came upon a sight to behold: delivery of a brand new Rolls Royce Phantom. I stopped, and as the automobile (it was an automobile) descended from the back of the white, unmarked trailer, I said to no one in particular, "That's a beautiful automobile". The new owner said thank you, presumably on behalf of the automobile. He seldom drives the Phantom, most likely because any trips he takes off the island are in his jet. With cooler weather coming, I will soon get to see the vintage automobiles that the older men who own "cottages" on the island (and visit, with their butlers, only occasionally and mostly in the cooler months) will drive up and down the two-lane road to the north end of the island. These are automobiles that likely cost hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars, to be ridden a few miles a couple of times a year. If not for inequality, what pleasure would we get from these beautiful vintage automobiles.

Why would you assume that you see vintage automobiles only because of inequity? If incomes were more equally distributed, would you not see more and perhaps even a wider variety of vintage automobiles? Of course, you might not call it vintage if everybody had one.

I address this issue at 35 min 15 seconds of my Jan. 2014 Columbia University presentation. Still a classic, with more than 21,000 views.



Yes, but that cuts both ways.

Teen employment dropped because to get a car, you had to pay roughly a thousand dollars up front, drive your parents around town for 50 hours (MI, but most states are similar), and then pass the road test. To get the license.

Then to get the car, you had to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars in some combination of car, maintenance and insurance costs. All so that you could then get to a part-time job that might pay $10/hour, or ~$150/week minus taxes at standard "I have classes, homework, and extracurriculars" high school availability.

Which meant that in the suburban context, working was for suckers.

/Except of course, then you couldn't afford the car.

Your status and your likelihood of getting sex as a teenage male were both significantly higher with a car than without.

Now we have Tinder and Snapchat

Teenagers sext rather than have sex. Teenage sexual activity has been falling precipitously for years.

In the '60s automobiles were rolling bedrooms for hormone-fueled teenagers who then became the baby boomers, leaders of the sexual revolution and its concomitant feminist movement. That cultural change is old stuff now so the importance of cars has diminished, partly because the children of the boomers enthusiastically haul their kids everywhere.

At the tippiest margin maybe but football player without car is getting laid way more than non-jock with a car. And the girls he's with are a lot more attractive.

"more to do with lack of employment of young people than with a change in culture."

BUT -- not getting a job early is part of the change of culture. Fewer young folk are allowed to work, so they are more dependent on parents for spending money.

MONEY = freedom, more than cars. For many, cars to get a job to get money to get freedom was the path. I worked till 10 or 11 on school nights way back in mid 70s. If young & mid teens aren't allowed those jobs, the need and utility for a car go down.

More kids need to do more work, including accepting a bit more risk.
Or not.
We're moving to an educated snowflake society, where SECURITY is so desired that voters/ administrators are willing to reduce Freedom to get it, or the promise/ illusion of it. (A thousand small cuts against freedom, one or two each week...)

All the cultural changes are happening at once, with many reinforcing some trends, with many others against, and the future remains unknown.

First Econ law: incentives matter. The culture is changing so that the incentive to work a low wage job is less, and thus the incentive to get a car is less, combined with the increased cost of getting a car.

80% of the reduction due to unemployment << I doubt that it's this high because of the other culture changes, but only if youth unemployment "magically" improves would this be shown, and that's highly unlikely.

Having tried to start driving as a teenager not so long ago (my parents ended up paying for the car and re-selling it for more than they bought it for), I think this is basically correct.

The wireless explanation assumes 18 years are making these decisions, not their parents. Why?

I blame insurance premiums. Parents save tens of thousands of dollars if kids don't obtain a license til 24 (or if you hide the fact of it from people who ask).

Won't cars become an even bigger part of the culture when self-driving cars appear?

I've been thinking a lot about this. I think the answer is no because part of our love of cars is our control over a powerful machine. If we aren't driving, we're just passengers, and the car becomes simply a way to get from here to there. Which I believe was the Ford slogan (or something like it) in the Model T days, so we've come full circle.

Look at how knights regarded their steeds in literature. Cars took that psychological function from the horse, along with more mundane functions.

I think a big question is whether said self-driving car is owned or rented.

Just a small grammatical mistake in the post in case it's easy to fix - "Car’s" should be "Cars".

Besides the lack of teen employment, this may also have to do with states adopting 'graduated' license laws which limit when and how teen drivers can drive:

This has reduced the utility drivers licenses for teens.

Yep, I was going to pop in here to say the same thing. Lots of different restrictions put in place the last 15 or so years (limits on # of occupants in the car, license isn't valid after 10 pm, etc) incrementally reduce the utility of a driver's license. Not sure that explains the whole decrease, but it's gotta be a factor, anyway.

It's especially big because if a high schooler doesn't have a full license by matriculation to university, then that significantly increases the chance of not bothering to get one while an undergrad. So the graduate licenses also explain a lot of the 19 year old decline as well.

The cost of auto insurance has also played a large part:

Does this correlate with increased numbers of millennials living in urban areas? (Where likelihood of accidents may be increased)

The decline is really striking.

I agree with the other explanations, but also we have a more infantilized society; parents and teenagers themselves feel they aren't ready to drive.

If you read what Tocqueville said about post-puberty teens in America, e.g. 14 year olds, you will be struck by the contrast.

And if you read what Tocqueville said about the sort of despotism that democracy has to fear, you'll know what happened.

The whole texting-while-driving scare was a swindle, too.


Youth car culture began declining around 1980. Even by the mid-80's it had significantly declined. This means it cannot be primarily caused by a decline of youth employment (starting from the 2008 crash). I think a lot of it is due to cars becoming more high-tech (you can no longer work on them yourself) and boring. The cars of the mid 70's on were big-time boring and unimpressive. This is the biggest cause of decline.

Other causes include the gradual decline of masculinity (which also started in the early 80's) as well.

I think kids are less outgoing (e.g. extroverted) than they were 40 years ago. I think even the kids of the 1980's were less outgoing than the boomers of the early 70's (who partied A LOT) who basically invented partying. I have a step niece and nephew (who were born in the mid 80's). They were a lot less socially active than my friends and were during youth.

All of these factors killed youth car culture by the end of the 80's, let alone today.

Boomer narcissism at its finest. Yea you guys invented partying ok. You guys invented America losing a war.

Huh? Don't forget boomers did most of the fighting and dying in that war. The oldest boomers hadn't turned 30 yet when Saigon fell.

Maybe because I grew up in Michigan, but I did not know anyone my age who did not have a drivers license and at least access to a car when I was a teen in the 80s. To be sure I don't think we did as much aimless "cruising" as previous generations but that can be explained by the fact that gasoline was pricier, and the cops much more likely to pull young drivers over due to suspicion of DUI what with the MADD crusade of the era.

Another factor is increased restrictions on youth (under 18) driving, like having to have an adult in the car in order to transport friends, etc. This is a big car culture killer as well.

My guess is that here in rural Texas 30% of drivers any age are driving without insurance or without a license or both. The costs are high, and you can get away with it for a long time if you aren't reckless. If you do get caught the fines are stiff -- the state puts a surcharge on the ticket for driving without insurance -- and if you are at the bottom of the food chain your only option may be to sit out your fine in jail before you get back on the road.

I've never heard anyone equate WiFi with freedom before. I asked my 17-year-old if he agreed that WiFi represents freedom. "No. It's the opposite. It's a tether." On the other hand, my 19-year-old, when asked if he agreed, answered, "True."

Correlation with urbanization? ...who needs a car in the big city?

Perhaps not necessarily urbanisation, which hasn't changed so much, but the geography of places young people need to get to.

If business is shuffling for more optimal locations each generation, at some point they will have locations that are better, in the sense of being more accessible with less travel for patrons. If this is a global effect, need to drive drops.

The "Who needs a car when that new outlet / supermarket just opened up down the street?" Theory

The rise of Uber might mean fewer cars with higher utilization. Since Uber took off, I can't remember the last time we had a designated driver

Presumably at no point in history did people buy cars in order to drive them drunk so it isn't clear how this would affect ownership rather than utilization.

In an alternate universe (Austin?), I have a car I use on the weekends for recreation, and the would-be Uber driver stays home with their car in the driveway. In the real world, I don't have a car, and use Uber to get around on weekends. So a car that might sit in a driveway all weekend gets put to use.

How about increase of immigrant and minority youth?

+1 on the idea of controlling for immigration.

Drivers' tests are harder to pass these days.

Hit and run is rampant in the Tampa/ central Florida area. A solution to the insurance cost?

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