Fewer young people are learning to drive
Fewer young people are learning to drive

Young people are driving less

The number of driving licence holders in Britain has fallen for the first time in decades, according to the National Travel Survey. The biggest changes, however, are in the different age groups. Fewer young people are obtaining licences, but the number of older people with licences is growing.

Since 1975 the number of drivers' licence holders has risen by 81% - from 19m licenced drivers to 35m in 2010.

Access to ever increasing numbers of cars and the consequent reshaping of people's lives to make them dependent on them is one of the chief reasons why cycling levels have remained virtually static since the mid twentieth century.

However, there are signs of change taking place. 'Peak car' , a theory expounded by academics such as Phil Goodwin, suggests that car usage will - or even already has - started to fall. Forecasts of interminable growth in private car use have been repeatedly shown to be wrong - with the growth in traffic far lower than early estimates. These forecasts are crucial: in many places new road infrastructure or spending on junctions is justified by claimed future congestion arising from the background increase in traffic. In reality, the number of miles travelled per person by car has fallen by 5% over the last 15 years. 

2011 was the first time ever that the National Travel Survey has found an estimated fall in the number of licence-holders - down around 60,000 over the year. But it's the changes amongst age groups that is striking. Whereas licences have become more and more common amongst older age groups, the proportion of younger people obtaining licences has fallen steadily over the past few years.

The following graph shows that over the last 15 years the proportion of 21-29 year-olds with licences has fallen from 74% to 63%, whilst for 70+ year olds it has risen from 38% to 59%. The ageing population means that a bigger proportion of all drivers are older - which may in part be the reason why deaths and injuries have declined so fast in recent years (young people carry much higher risks of killing or injuring themselves and others).

Proportion of population with driving licences

The changes in licence holding is also reflected in the number of miles reported to be driven by young age groups. The number of miles driven by 17-20 year-olds dropped a staggering 17% in 2011 when compared to the previous year, whereas miles driven climbed 11% amongst those aged 70 or more.

In part these changes probably result from high unemployment amongst young people and skyrocketing motoring insurance costs for that age group. However, the changes may also be linked to changing aspirations and attitudes amongst the population, with an older population still deeply attached to the car, whereas some younger people no longer see the car as a requirement for social interaction or status. 


Chris Peck