For generations of American teenagers, obtaining a driver’s license was a rite of passage. But when Jonathan Golden, a scruffy-haired high schooler who lives in Santa Monica, California, turned 16 in November, he couldn’t be bothered with the bureaucracy of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Instead, he wanted his own Uber account.
That way, he could do normal teenage things like meeting friends at the mall, going to the movies or coming home from school without having to call his parents. He was also open to the idea of picking up a date in an Uber though he says he doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment.
“It’s like you’re being driven around by your parents, but you don’t have to hold a conversation with them,” he said.
While Jonathan may be an early adopter, he said that most of his friends don’t have a license or car, either. Often they share Uber rides, using the app’s built-in fare-splitting feature, for after-school outings and weekend hangouts.
The lack of excitement about driving among teenagers is not unique to Jonathan and his friends, but points to a growing cultural shift.
In recent years, there has been a considerable decline in the percentage of teenagers with a driver’s license, according to Brandon Schoettle, a project manager at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, who has studied the decline with Michael Sivak.
In one study, they found that the ranks of 16-year-olds in the United States with a driver’s license had fallen to 28 percent in 2010, from 46 percent in 1983.
Schoettle said that while the number of licensed teenagers has started to level off in some areas (though rising slightly in a select few), there are many reasons that teenagers are choosing not to get a license, including the advent of ride-sharing apps.
“Having the convenience of Lyft and Uber probably outweighs the money and cost of owning a vehicle,” Schoettle said in a phone interview. “The cellphone also makes it so much more convenient to get a ride from a friend or taxi service.”
There are also financial considerations. While AAA estimates that the cost of owning a car has fallen in recent years, maintenance, registration fees, insurance and gas quickly add up to thousands of dollars. (And for some, there are parking tickets to pay.)
Enter the ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which are often cheaper and more efficient than owning a car.
But there are drawbacks to this decline in car culture. Jonathan, for example, would miss out on the bonding experience of having his father teach him how to drive (though they did bond over the pitfalls of Uber “surge pricing,” his father, Eric Golden, said).
And there are those nostalgic teenage moments like driving around with friends and singing to the radio, sitting on your trunk in an empty parking lot, or making out with someone in the back of the car.
But for Golden, 46, an entrepreneurial executive, those cultural losses are outweighed by the safety advantages. “I kept pushing my son, saying ‘Don’t you want to learn how to drive?’ and he’d say, ‘Maybe, but not right now,’ ” Golden said. “Then it occurred to me: Why am I pushing him so hard? An Uber is going to be so much safer than a 16-year-old behind the wheel.”
He’s right. According to federal statistics that were published in April 2014, 1,875 drivers age 15 to 20 died in car crashes in 2012. An additional 184,000 young drivers were injured that year. (The good news: Young driver fatalities and accidents are on the decline from previous years.)
A report released last month by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research group, found that 6 out of 10 car accidents involving teenagers were a result of being distracted while driving.
Numbers like that may frighten many parents whose children are nearing the age of getting behind the wheel.
But does the gain in traffic safety come at the loss of independence?
Yes and no, said Amanda Lenhart, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, who focuses on teenagers.
While teenagers may be less free to move around and explore, she said, the independence that a driver’s license once symbolized has been replaced by the cellphone.
“Young people wouldn’t delay getting their license if they felt that it was critical to them as a talisman for freedom and independence,” Lenhart said.