Teens putting the brakes on driving

Teen sitting in driveway with guitar and other music equipment.

Peter Barrett

Posted June 12, 2019

Why millennials around the world are steering clear of getting their driver’s licence. 

Reuben Cumming doesn’t drive. The 19-year-old VCA music composition student plays in several bands and lives at home with his parents in Seddon, in Melbourne’s inner west. He catches the tram to uni and, when he needs to get his gear to a gig, he relies on friends or his dad (a “car-obsessed” collector of Renaults) for transport. 

At first, it was just a “laziness thing”, he says. But, as time has gone on, he’s built more reasons for not getting behind the wheel. “But as time has gone on I’ve built more reasons for avoiding [driving].”

Reuben is not alone. A recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey revealed a 6.2 per cent drop in men aged 18 and 19 getting their driver’s licence, down from 71 per cent in 2012 to 64.8 per cent in 2016. (Young women of the same age are catching up, increasing from 60.2 per cent in 2012 to 63.6 per cent in 2016.)  

For years, learning to drive has been a rite of passage. But the decline in young people with driver’s licences is now a trend seen in the US, Canada, Sweden, Norway, the UK and Germany. 

A 2015 RACV report notes that common reasons among young people for not getting their licence, both here and overseas, included the difficulty of the licensing process, being “too busy”, the expense of owning and maintaining a vehicle, their ability to rely on others for lifts, and a general preference for walking, cycling or using public transport.  

Much of this rings true for Reuben but he has other reasons, too. “The scariest one is that I’ve been faced with the reality of deaths on the road,” he says, explaining that two people from his social circle died in separate road accidents in the past year. “I’m a daydreamer sometimes, so I worry that wouldn’t go very well with being in charge of a vehicle.”  

He says most of his friends don’t drive either, with many of them citing environmental concerns as a key reason to avoid getting behind the wheel.

New licence rules driving teens away

In 2007 VicRoads introduced new rules which require learners under 21 to log at least 120 hours of supervised driving before getting their driver’s licence. While the rule has clearly helped reduce the risk of crashes among young drivers, it has also created a disincentive for many to get their licence. 

Drivers like Noah Stanning of Yarraville. Until now, the 21-year-old had shown little interest in driving. His parents didn’t own a car so logging 120 hours’ supervised driving seemed a formidable task. But since he’s been on the job hunt for an apprenticeship as an electrician the pressure to drive is on. 

“I need it now,” he says, explaining that six prospective employers told him to come back for an interview once he had his licence. In the end, it made sense to wait a few months until he turned 21 to avoid the 120-hour rule. 

Vic Roads figures suggest the 120-hour requirement has had a big impact on reducing accidents among young people; between 2004 and 2014 there was a 42.5 per cent drop in the number of drivers aged 18 to 23 involved in a casualty accident.   

However, there may be some unintended consequences, notes HILDA survey co-author and University of Melbourne economist, Professor Roger Wilkins. 

“There’s an argument that we’re making it more costly, particularly for younger people, to have their own means of transport. It’s more of an issue for those living outside major urban areas, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that [a driver’s licence] is pretty important to job prospects.” 

Disincentives aside, is this non-driving trend just a city phenomenon? “I would cautiously say that it’s going to be stronger in cities than in the country [but] we don’t have a lot of direct evidence there,” says Monash Institute of Transport Studies’ Dr Alexa Delbosc, adding  a recent study with 21 to 25-year-olds, including regional Victorians, showed there are young people in the country who don’t have their licences, but fewer than in the cities.  

In fact, she says, the delay in Millennials getting driving qualifications fits a wider pattern. “In Australia the number one [reason] is that young people in general are taking longer to reach traditional adult milestones than they have in the past. More young people are going to uni or TAFE, they’re working part-time for longer in their 20s and waiting longer before they get that first full-time job.”  

Getting married later and high property prices placing extra financial pressures on young people are also factors, she says. “All of those delays mean that a young person has less money for a car and potentially less of a desperate need for one.” 


Clocking up 120 hours 

In 2007 VicRoads enhanced its Graduated Licensing System for people under 21. Among new rules, learners are now required to log at least 120 hours under the wing of a supervising (experienced) driver, including 20 hours at night. 

Many young people see the requirement as a disincentive to getting their licence but young-driver crashes have fallen since it was introduced. 

“We are undertaking new research on young drivers who have not completed the 120-hour driving requirement and their involvement in crashes, to help us better support these drivers and ensure their safety on our roads,” says Roger Chao, VicRoads Director Road User and Vehicle Access. 


The RACV’s position 

“RACV believes there should be a requirement for all learner drivers, regardless of their age, to get extensive driving experience in a range of conditions such as night, wet weather and various road and traffic conditions before they take the drive test for their probationary licence,” says Rebekah Smith, RACV’s education programs coordinator. 

She points out that learner drivers can take advantage of the free driving lesson available to all learners and their supervising drivers through the Australian government-funded Keys2drive program.