Driving’s declining appeal


in Canada, Law, The environment, Travel

Spring leaves

While they are generally an urban and environmentally aware bunch, it still seems notable that most of my friends who grew up in cities never chose to get driving licenses. With the notable exception of friends who live in rural areas or distant suburbs, driving seems to have become something that relatively few people find worthwhile. An article from The New York Times suggests that they are less unusual than one might think:

In the last decade, the proportion of 16-year-olds nationwide who hold driver’s licenses has dropped from nearly half to less than one-third, according to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

While it would be better to have data extending up into people in their mid-20s, it does seem safe to guess that numbers there are also falling. I have personally never had a license that permitted me to drive a car alone. Even my learner’s license has been expired since December 2003.

There are a number of causes I would attribute to the trend, at least among those I know:

  1. Graduated licensing schemes make it more and more annoying to get a license. In British Columbia, it now takes more than a year before you can get a license that is useful for anything other than practicing with a fully-licensed adult driver.
  2. Partly due to longer licensing processes, a good number of people now head off to university before they can get through to a license they can use alone. By the time they are at school, they have more pressing uses for their time and reduced access to adults willing to serve as observers.
  3. Cars, gas, and insurance are expensive. Also, people are choosing to spend longer in school and spend more in total on tuition. Twenty or thirty years ago, a fair number of 25 year-olds had probably been on the job and debt free for a while. Among my friends, there is a good chance they will be in grad school and still collecting student debt.
  4. People are more mobile. They don’t stay in one place long enough for it to be worth getting a car or license.
  5. People are more environmentally aware. Whereas once cars were symbols of wealth and freedom, they are increasingly symbols of greed and an anti-social willingness to harm those around you.

What other reasons would people give for the trend away from driving? Personally, I think the trend is a positive one – comparable to the increasing rareness and social unacceptability of smoking.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Padraic May 3, 2008 at 8:29 am

I read somewhere that NYTimes stat about 16-year-old drivers is misleading, because it simply reflects that some states have raised the minimum license age. Can’t remember I source for that, though.

Tristan May 3, 2008 at 8:49 am

I firmly believe that there is something like a moral duty to learn to drive an automobile, although I’m less sure that this corresponds to a need to acquire a license.

If there is a duty to acquire a license it is because one’s existence demands the existence of friends who have licenses, and this is unclear, because it seems to me that most every facet of one’s existence would be different but not incontrevertibly so if all one’s friends didn’t have licenses. Furthermore, if the maxim is universalized, i.e. if everyone didn’t a license, there would presumably the public transit to warrent not having a license.

Knowing how to drive at all is more clear cut – many unlikely put possible situations put one as the only one fit to drive in an emergency. In cases of emergency it is not necessary to have a license but it is necessary to be able to operate a (any) motor vehicle. I mean “necessity” in the sense that if the emergency situation demands it, not being able to drive appears as a tragedy.

There is one other point I’d like to make concerning driving. I argue driving is a mostly non-cognitive activity, or at least an activity that becomes much less cognitive as one becomes proficient at it. As one ages, it becomes more difficult to engage in radically new kinds of non-cognitive habits. As such, drivers who learn to drive at 30 never seem to feel ‘at home’ on the road, in the sense of being non cognitively geared into the situation in the appropriate way. I think it is this characteristic of driving, which is difficult to quantify in actuarial terms, which will partially offset the reduction in deaths produced by graduated licensing schemes.

R.K. May 3, 2008 at 9:06 am

The global trend towards living in cities is probably part of it.

Untamed scribe May 3, 2008 at 1:19 pm

I see the trend too, but only with my urban/suburban friends. A handful of them aren’t licensed and don’t intend to ever learn how to drive. It comes down to cost and convenience, it seems. Why bother driving when there’s public transit (and thus no parking problems downtown)? Being a driver, I usually opt to leave my car at home if I’m travelling around downtown because parking is always a hassle. I only use the car to head to the suburbs or out of the city.

I also have to agree with the issue of cost you mentioned. Student loans + car payments + insurance + gasoline + car maintenance + all the other fees associated with owning a car just don’t seem worth it if the car can be dropped from the equation. But, as Tristan notes, that means there’s some reliance on friends/family who do drive. And it makes road trips a pain because there are fewer drivers to share the burden.

Learning to drive is one thing. Owning a car is another. One doesn’t necessarily require the other. I can see why some wouldn’t bother owning a car, but to choose to be unable to drive does raise some interesting questions and potential problems, some of which Tristan touched on.

Milan May 3, 2008 at 1:22 pm

I don’t disagree that knowing how to drive could be useful. I just don’t think it is useful enough to justify the time and expense.

Sasha May 3, 2008 at 3:00 pm

You’ve hot on a topic I’ve actually been discussing quite a bit lately. I attribute this shift at least in part to a change in mentality. The impression that I get from members of previous generations – my parents’ and grandparents’ for instance – is that driving/automobile ownership was viewed as a right, something each individual is entitled to. Few among my friends of my own generation have this attitude. Instead, they view driving as a privilege. What’s more, they tend to view every day use of automobiles for individual commuter transportation as an abuse of this privilege. I agree.

Sasha May 3, 2008 at 3:02 pm

and that wants to be *hit rather than *hot, of course…

Milan May 3, 2008 at 3:03 pm


That is one of the ways in which it is like smoking. At one point, diners in restaurants and office workers would have assumed the right to smoke wherever they were.

Now, people are legally obligated to take the health and comfort of others into account – at least when it comes to the absolutely vile habit of smoking.

Sarah May 3, 2008 at 4:08 pm

I’m not convinced by Tristan’s claim that one is dependant on friends & family with licences. There are some locations that do require a car to access (presuming one wants to avoid a very long walk or cycle eg. on logging roads) but these tend to be optional and the vast majority of places can be reached by public transit or commercial buses, even outside the city.

In the UK I use public transit to get virtually everywhere, including airports, my parents house, friends houses, and entertainment such as Wimbledon or Brighton Pier. In Vancouver I get around by cycling & public transit, except for the times I purchase things like large furniture or large plants (though often the retailers will deliver). When I travelled to Yosemite from Vancouver, Greyhound buses took me the entire way. Even at the extreme of having a stress fracture in my leg, I got around using public transit & occasional taxis.

As such, I see no problem with urban societies in which the only drivers are professional drivers – people in buses, taxis, fortlifts etc. HOWEVER, such societies would require a better developed etiquette for using public transit, eg. not smoking at bus stops; not having loud, protracted personal calls on crowded buses; and using a hankerchief when you sneeze.

Tristan May 3, 2008 at 5:35 pm

“I’m not convinced by Tristan’s claim that one is dependant on friends & family with licences. ”

I do not mean that everyone is so dependent, but from my observation of Milan’s friends, their normal patterns of behavior often require someone to act as a driver. What sort of skills one depends on is contingent on the actions one engages in.

However, this is not so important for my argument. What I really wanted to point towards was the existence of certain contexts where the ability, but not license, to drive a car appears as an absolute necessity. Such as, if someone needs to get to the hospital and there is no ambulance service – or even if there is, in rural areas ambulances take twice as long as a car because they have to travel in both directions. (Of course they can drive faster which someone mitigates this, and perhaps they are safer than speeding).

I think the strong requirement to learn to drive is derived from the reasonable possibility that one might one day find oneself in a situation where this skill is indispensable. Saying that there will likely be someone else there to has the skill doesn’t feel like a way to shrug off the moral requirement, because if everyone made that argument, then it would become false.

Neal May 4, 2008 at 12:29 am

Part of the problem with your argument, Tristan, is that it only applies to the transportation infrastructure we have today. I strongly suspect that the dominance of private automobiles, especially in urban areas, is coming to an end. Besides, having a license and no car would just replace being dependent on rides from friends to being dependent on friends who’s vehicle you can borrow. That said, this is just ancillary to your argument that prudence requires the ability to drive. I do wonder, though, if your argument is better applied to, say, first aid training than driving; certainly, driving seems to be a skill many more people acquire.

Another point to consider is if the advantages of everyone being able or licensed to drive are outweighed by the cost in lives on the road of private automobiles being the dominant form of transportation.

Part of the reason I resist the pressure on me to get a license is that if I had one and no car, I would drive rarely, which would make me a decidedly less safe driver than someone who is on the road every day. I also wonder if the incentive to get behind the wheel out of convenience would prove too compelling, especially considering how much more convenient driving makes backcountry skiing.

Certainly, in areas where driving is an absolute necessity, there would be a strong argument for a moral duty to acquire driving skills, but everyone learns to drive in these places anyways. It’s in the city, where such a circumstance would be much rarer, where you would find the most people who can’t drive.

Tristan May 4, 2008 at 10:32 am

” Part of the problem with your argument is that it only applies to the transportation infrastructure we have today. I strongly suspect that the dominance of private automobiles, especially in urban areas, is coming to an end”

Since I don’t believe in God or morality which is imposed on us in abstraction from our involvements, I think all moral duties derive from the situations we find ourselves in, or can expect to find ourselves in. So, I entirely agree that as the “age of driving” comes to an end, the duty to have the ability to drive will fade. I do not think any duties are absolute outside particular situations, because I just don’t think its possible to know in advance what moral demands will be made on us, although we can make good guesses.

To clarify, I never argued that there was a duty to get a license, merely to have the ability to drive (this would probably include the ability to drive different kinds of vehicles, i.e. manual, gas and diesel, trucks and cars etc…). I would agree first aid training falls into the same category of duties. There is something like a duty to know basic first aid training because you can expect the possibility in which said training would appear as a necessity in some situation is not obscure.

Nick May 5, 2008 at 4:06 am

Neal makes some very good points, which as a frequent driver I am inclined to agree with. It’s one thing to be licensed to drive, and another thing to be an adept driver. Our licensing requirements are finally moving in the right direction (and as a result, licensing less people), but it’s still not really enough, and it’s up to the individual to refrain from driving when they just plain suck at it. People have this terrifying ability to push the inherent dangers involved in driving out of their minds, when they should approach driving with constant vigilance. It is one of the most dangerous habits of our lives, and should be treated as such. Minimizing driving is minimizing death.

Tristan May 5, 2008 at 5:26 am

It goes without saying that while driving there is a duty to approach the situation with constant vigilance. The fact that people in north american socities do not in general “take driving seriously” is unfortunate, but doesn’t change things when it comes to what one should do.

In moral deliberation, “what everyone does” is irrelevant except insofar as it changes what one ought to do or can do. It is of absolutely no use whatsoever to try to think of the principle which if everyone followed, we would be better off, because we don’t make laws for others. The point of moral deliberation is to find what’s right for one to do, and simply because one is a moral universalist and believes that anyone in that situation would have the same duties does not mean the point of investigating duties is to find out “what everyone should do”. “What everyone should do” is of no moral significance whatsoever.

. May 5, 2008 at 10:59 am

There is a mounting body of evidence suggesting that global demand for oil is fast outstripping supply. For starters, global oil production has stagnated in recent years at approximately 87 million barrels per day. This is as much the result of the declining output by some of the world’s largest oil fields (e.g., onetime oil exporters such as Mexico are now importing gas) as it is a reflection of the difficulty of finding new oil reserves: In the last 15 years, despite oil companies spending billions on exploration, only one new oil field with the potential to produce half a million barrels a day has been found.

. May 9, 2008 at 4:21 pm

SUV Rollover

[W]holesale prices on big SUVs such as Chevrolet Tahoes, Ford Expeditions and Toyota Sequoias are down 17% from a year ago. Full-size pickups have fallen as much as 15%…

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