Americans show waning interest in driver's licenses

University Of Michigan Study Finds Declines Across All Ages

A rising percentage of Americans are skipping the time-honored tradition of obtaining and holding a driver's license.

Researchers from the University of Michigan found a decrease in the proportion of US citizens who hold licenses between 2011 and 2014. It'd be tempting to say a new wave of young Americans no longer interested in driving cars are driving the trend, especially amid a flurry of new ride-sharing services and alternate methods of transportation.

But it's not just teenagers. It's everyone. Data culled from the Federal Highway Administration shows decreases across all age groups. Among 20-to-24-year-olds, the proportion dropped 3 percent in the latest three-year span for which data is available, from 79.7 percent to 76.7 percent. Among 40-to-44-year-olds, it dropped 2.5 percent over the three years. Among 65-to-60-year-olds, it fell 1.6 percent.

The most interesting part of the data isn't that a lower percentage of younger people are eschewing driver's licenses. That percentage has been consistently falling for the past two decades, long before Uber and Lyft arrived to pose a threat to the traditional car-ownership model.

It's that the percentage of middle-aged and senior citizens has declined. Their numbers showed a consistent rise over a quarter-century until 2008. Since the Great Recession, they've never recovered. Among those ages 60 to 64, the percentage of Americans with licenses declined by 3 percent. Among those 30 to 34, the percentage declined 4.4 percent.

The paper's authors, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, didn't analyze the factors driving the trends. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft might be obvious contributors – certainly General Motors thinks so. The company unveiled Maven, a new ride-sharing brand, and invested $500 million in Lyft only weeks ago.

But another factor might be that a lower percentage of Americans are seeking employment. Even as the unemployment rate has fallen to 5 percent, the percentage of Americans seeking employment has decreased 3.2 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' civilian labor force participation rate.

While the implications of fewer drivers seeking licenses might worry automakers over the long term, the decline in interest in licenses hasn't hurt interest in owning cars. Over the same period, automakers have enjoyed an unprecedented climb in auto sales. They've increased sales for six consecutive years, the first time in US history that's happened. Units sold reached 17.47 million in 2015, the highest ever recorded.

Americans are also traveling more miles than ever. With a growing economy and cheap gas prices, the number of vehicle miles traveled increased "substantially" in 2015, according to the Federal Highway Administration, reaching an estimated 3.06 trillion miles.

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