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The share of teenagers with driver’s licenses in the 16-19 age group declined from 64 percent in 1995 to just under 40 percent in 2021, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The reasons are as complicated as teens. Car costs have surged. Inflation has pushed up the prices of insurance and gas. Ride-hailing and home delivery apps make cars feel less essential. America’s urban centers are growing more crowded and less car-friendly. Teens are socializing more online and less in person. Many young people would rather bike or walk than pollute their planet.

More than anything, perhaps, the decline in teen drivers reflects the impact of “graduated” licensing. Starting around 1996, states enacted new rules tailored to ease novice drivers onto the road. Teen drivers must now spend months gaining skills in low-risk settings before they gain full driving privileges.

Taken together, the economics of finding a car, insuring it and learning to drive it can be daunting, especially for teens from lower-income families.

“Getting a license is an expensive process,” said Becca Weast, a research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Usually, when people delay getting a license, it’s because it’s expensive, and because they don’t have the resources to make it happen.”

The downward trend in driving extends beyond the teen years, spanning Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, and reaching into the millennial generation.

Before the turn of the millennium, a driver’s license emblemized American adulthood. More than 90 percent of late-twenty-somethings had one.

No longer. The share of licensed drivers ages 20-24 dipped from 87 percent in 1995 to 81 percent in 2021. In the 25-29 age group, the share of licensed drivers slipped from 95 percent to 88 percent.

“At a population level, certainly, the data suggest that it’s about the resources, money and time and access to a car,” said Johnathon Ehsani, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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