Fewer Teenagers Have Driver’s Licenses … Because of Gas Prices and the Internet?

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The number of teen drivers has dramatically decreased over the past couple of decades. In 1983, 69% of all 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. By 2008, only half of 17-year-olds had licenses. What’s behind the big drop?

Researchers hypothesize that the rise of the Internet, text messaging, and other technology has made it easier for teens to connect with each other and socialize without the need of a car. The car culture of generations past has apparently been replaced, at least partially, by the e-culture of texts, Twitter, Netflix, iTunes, and Facebook.

The Detroit News reported that the study, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, showed a noticeable decline in young drivers, especially those in the 16- to 19-year-old range. There’s a smaller proportion of 20-somethings on the road nowadays as well: In recent times, 22% of drivers were under age 30, compared to roughly one-third of the licensed-driver population in 1983.

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The shift toward an older average driver has to partly be explained by the general aging of the population. (By 2025, 20% of drivers on U.S. roads will be over the age of 65.) But researchers point out that the decrease in young drivers may be attributable to technology, specifically with regards to the way people interact today:

“It is possible that the availability of virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact among young people,” said Michael Sivak, research professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute. “Furthermore, some young people feel that driving interferes with texting and other electronic communication.”

Well, it most certainly interferes in that (hopefully) it stops teens from texting and driving at the same time.

The Los Angeles Times story about the study also theorizes that the modern-day costs and hassles involved in driving have made teens less likely to bother with driver’s licenses:

Sivak’s research appears to indicate that teenagers think traffic congestion and high fuel costs are the real nightmares, taking up time and money that could otherwise be spent on electronic communication.

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The trend doesn’t bode well for automakers, who have been trying to turn each generation of young people into lifelong car enthusiasts since the industry began.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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