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Why are teenagers driving less?


For decades, driving has been a teenage rite of passage associated with freedom and maturity. But for Generation Z, which includes people born between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, this has changed.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the share of Americans aged 19 and under with driver’s licenses has continually decreased, from 63.9% in 1996 to 39.5% in 2022. And within Hastings, of the 29 high school juniors and seniors surveyed for this article, only 29.2% of students who were old enough to get their driver’s licenses had actually gotten one.

In said survey, students cited many different reasons for not getting their licenses.

One common theme was fear and anxiety around driving. When asked why they hadn’t yet gotten their licenses, one anonymous student responded, “I am very scared of driving and I like walking/taking transit everywhere so it’s not strictly necessary.” Another student wrote, “I’m getting [a license] so late because I am anxious about driving. I don’t actually have a need to, and I didn’t necessarily like the idea of driving.” 

This is not just a Hastings phenomenon, however: about 1 in 5 teens reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety in the past two weeks in a Teen National Health Interview Survey, and Gen Z is “a lot more anxious as a generation in general,” as one anonymous survey respondent wrote, so it is unsurprising that some teenagers are impacted by anxiety surrounding driving as well.

Some HHS students, like Fiona Pugh and Ben Emtage, both juniors, said that “there’s nowhere to go,” citing the lack of third places, which are places meant purely for recreation. Many students also find that Hastings is so walkable that they can get to school, home, and even friend’s houses without a car, so they don’t feel as much of a need for one. 

As one survey respondent said, “Third places like malls are dying out so there aren’t many places to go and hang out. We can also take the train into the city and to other local towns. [There is] not much incentive to get a license: where else would you go apart from driving around and to school? Most people live close enough to walk.”

Another reason for the decreased rates of teenage driving could be “the cost of the car, gas, and insurance, the last of which is much higher-priced for young drivers,” or even “America’s continuing urbanization,” as Joel Mathis wrote in The Week, although this was not cited by any Hastings student in the survey.

But one of the primary problems lies not in logistics, but in motivation; the increasingly digital nature of Gen Z’s social lives could be to blame. As Shannon Osaka wrote in the Washington Post, “Gen Zers have the ability to do things online — hang out with friends, take classes, play games — that used to be available only in person.” Because of this, the motivation to drive might be reduced, as phones give Gen Z the freedom that driving provided earlier generations.

One Hastings student agreed: “The advent of social media and the internet means teens are bored less often, so if they don’t need to get anywhere it’s less likely that they will want to [drive] somewhere for recreation.”

All of these factors most likely contribute to decreased rates of teenage driving, but fewer teens embarking on this rite of passage is just one way that marks Gen Z’s differences from previous generations.

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About the Contributor
Natalie Garson, Managing Editor
Natalie is currently a junior. She has a seven-year-old sister, so she knows an inordinate amount about certain kids' shows, like PJ Masks. She enjoys watching Star Trek and reading (these days she's probably reading classics in order to study for Academic Challenge). She also loves playing the clarinet in HHS's band and Jazz Band.

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