Why Teens Are Driving Less: It's The Economy, Stupid

New study says economic crunch is primarily to blame for decline in teen driving

Teens are driving less -- that much we know already. We've watched the auto industry gnash its collective teeth over the downward trend in Generation Y driving for a while now.

But lost in the explanations of whether teens now prefer their cellphones as a means of gaining independence or whether young adults prefer pedestrian-friendly cities is perhaps a more practice reason for the decline: It's the economy, stupid.

Teenage unemployment skyrocketed during the Great Recession. At the same time, the costs associated with driving increased. Economics were the most significant factor in the decline in insured teens between 2006 and 1012, an IIHS study released Thursday found.

"It stands to reason that a higher percentage of teens would be unable to afford insurance," says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Teen unemployment rose from 15 percent in 2006 to 26 percent in 2010, percentages significantly higher than the general population. At the same time, the average costs of driving a sedan per mile increased from 62 cents in 2006 to 77 cents per mile by 2012, an increase of approximately 24 percent.

When an economic recovery began in 2010 and unemployment rates stabilized, so did numbers of insured teens.

"It looks like teens just can't afford to drive," said Matt Moore, vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute. "Paying for their own cars, gas and insurance is hard if they can't find a job. At the same time, kids who count on Mom and Dad to help them also may be out of luck if their parents have been affected by the recession."

While the rise of social media and texting have been a popular explanation for the decline in driving, recent research from the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute suggests experts may have that backward.

Higher social-media usage might be an end result of how teens communicate when they cannot afford to drive. In a recent survey, only 3 percent of 18-19-year-olds say "able to communicate and/or conduct business online instead" is their main reason for not currently holding a driver's license.

Seventeen percent said cost was their primary reason.

Other studies contradict the IIHS study. Earlier this summer, a study from U.S. PIRG found that of the 10 states with double-digit declines in driving, only two are also among the states that showed the largest decline in employment. Others found the decline in driving began in 2004, years before the start of the economic downturn.

If the economy continues to improve, IIHS says teen driving may increase again. That might be a good thing for the auto industry, but the rebound may come with a caveat, says IIHS: "Teen driving may increase again, leading to a rise in teen crash deaths."

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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