We're Driving Less: What That Means

We're Driving Less: What That Means

In a working paper released last week by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle examined changes in the percentage of Americans with a driver's license. Younger age groups have seen their rate decline continuously since 1983 — the number for 20- to 24-year-olds, for example, fell from 92 percent to 77 percent in 2014.

Other groups actually saw an increase between 1983 and 2008, the most dramatic (from 55 percent to 78 percent) being among those over 70. But all age groups have seen a decline since at least 2011.

Why are so many Americans not getting licensed? In a 2013 study, Schoettle and Sivak conducted an online survey asking unlicensed adults age 18 to 39 that very question. The top five reasons were: too busy or not enough time to get a driver's license (37 percent); owning and maintaining a vehicle is too expensive (32 percent); able to get transportation from others (31 percent); prefer to bike or walk (22 percent); and prefer to use public transportation (17 percent). All other survey responses registered in the single digits, including "concerned about how driving impacts the environment" (9 percent). (The numbers add to more than 100 percent because secondary responses are included.)

An important caveat, however, was that 69 percent of those surveyed planned to get a driver's license within the next five years, while only 22 percent planned never to get one. So it's not clear whether this generation of younger Americans will continue to drive less than previous generations as they age.

The economy will be a factor, seeing as the expense of owning a vehicle is one of the most commonly cited reasons for being unlicensed. Labor-force participation has been inching downward in recent decades, even among those in their late 20s and early 30s. If this unsettling trend continues, many Americans in this age group will likely continue to depend on non-automotive modes of transportation.

Among Americans over 70, nearly four out of five are now licensed, and that figure appears to be relatively stable. With this age group, driver safety is the elephant in the room, and these Americans strongly view their freedom as tied to their driving rights. Fortunately, a technological solution, in the form of self-driving or "autonomous" vehicles, is in the near-term offing. Existing automobiles have already incorporated such safety features as lane-departure warnings, speed-adjusting cruise control, rear-view cameras, and automatic brakes. This trend will continue to accelerate, with some predicting that fully self-driving cars will dominate as early as 2030.

The looming public-policy challenge will be adopting an acceptable regulatory framework to govern self-driving vehicles. In an October press release, Volvo president and chief executive Hakan Samuelsson said that "the US risks losing its leading position [on self-driving cars] due to the lack of federal guidelines for the testing and certification of autonomous vehicles. Europe has suffered to some extent by having a patchwork of rules and regulations." Samuelsson was referring to the prospect of each state government instituting its own rules.

The issue of state versus federal laws is always contentious, and the evolution of this technology requires that the public-policy discussion begin in earnest. One option to consider is a model statute that each state government can consider (with minor variations allowed).

If such a statute can be developed over the next few years, it will give ample time to prepare for the coming revolution in how Americans travel.

Thomas A. Hemphill is a professor of strategy, innovation and public policy in the School of Management, University of Michigan-Flint and a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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