Half of Eligible Teenagers Delay Drivers License, Study Finds

In an unexpected sign of the times, about half of the teenagers in the U.S. who are old enough to obtain a drivers license are waiting to do so, according to a new survey.  The most common reasons cited for delayed licensure were not having a car, being able to get around without driving, and costs associated with driving.

The study, by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found that less than half (44 percent) of teens obtain a driver’s license within 12 months of the minimum age for licensing and just over half (54 percent) are licensed before their 18th birthday. These findings mark a significant drop from two decades ago when data showed more than two-thirds of teens were licensed by the time they turned 18, accordidelayed licenseng to AAA.

The report found “Large social and economic disparities in licensing rates and in the timing of licensure.” Low-income, African-American and Hispanic teens are the least likely to obtain a driver’s license before age 18.

Only 25 percent of teens living in households with incomes less than $20,000 obtained their license before they turned 18, while 79 percent of teens were licensed by their 18th birthday in households with incomes of $100,000 or more.

 The findings for licensure by age 18 also differed significantly by race and ethnicity, with 67 percent for non-Hispanic white teens, 37 percent for non-Hispanic black teens, and 29 percent for Hispanic teens.

Some had suggested that teens were waiting simply to avoid graduated driver’s licensing (GDL), missing both the limitations and benefits of the laws, which vary across states, aimed at improving new driver training and safety, and causing some concern.  The survey, however, did not find this to be a prominent reason in delayed licensing.  A number of other reasons for delaying licensure were cited, including:

  • 44 %– Did not have a car
  • 39 % – Could get around without driving
  • 36 %– Gas was too expensive
  • 36 % – Driving was too expensive
  • 35 % – Just didn’t get around to it

Many states impose the GDL restrictions only for new drivers younger than 18.  The AAA report indicated that “Given the  large proportion of new drivers who are 18 years old or older, further research is needed to investigate their levels of safety or risk, to evaluate the potential impacts of extending GDL systems to new drivers aged 18 and older, and to explore other ways to address the needs of older novice drivers.”

In Connecticut, anyone 18 years of age or older must hold an adult learner’s permit for 3 months before obtaining a driver's license.  The state Department of Motor Vehicles website outlines the procedures in Connecticut, which have been revised as recently as January 2013 based on new laws approved by the state legislature.

The proportion of teens who were licensed varied strongly by geographic region, the AAA study found: licensing rates were much higher in the Midwest (82%) than in the Northeast (64%), South (68%), or West (71%).

The study did not discern major variations by gender among teens.  Although males were slightly more likely than females to obtain a license within six months of their state’s minimum age (33% vs. 28%), females were actually slightly more likely than males to obtain a license within 1-2 months of their state’s minimum age.

The researchers surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,039 respondents ages 18-20. The full research report and results are available on the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety website.