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Are fewer California teens opting to get behind the wheel?

Powerful message about texting while driving

Did you know that when you send or receive a text you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds? At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.
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Did you know that when you send or receive a text you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds? At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.

Getting a driver’s license has long been a teenage rite of passage, an anxiously awaited four-wheeled step up the ladder to adulthood.

That tradition, though, has shown signs of easing into the slow lane, with government numbers suggesting a decline in teenagers behind the wheel.

In 1981, 16- to 19-year-olds represented about 6.3 percent of licensed drivers in California, according to Department of Motor Vehicles data. By early 2016, their share had declined to 3.3 percent.

Federal numbers reveal a similar dip. Teens represented about 4 percent of licensed drivers in the U.S in 2015, down from almost 5 percent in 2007, according to license data from the Federal Highway Administration.

The number of teenagers has shrunk during that time. In 2015, 15- to 19-year-olds represented 6.7 percent of the population, down from an estimated 7.3 percent in 2007.

California’s license-eligible teen population has dropped, as well, but government numbers suggest other factors at play.

About 40.5 percent of teens had licenses at the end of 2015, compared to 44.3 percent of teens in 2000. The number of licensed teen drivers at the end of 2015 – 862,592 – was the fewest since 1997.

Among the possible explanations: being able to stream movies and shop at home instead of going to the mall; the effects of the recession, which hit lower-income workers the hardest; and the cost of insurance for higher-risk teen drivers.

Government rules also are likely having an impact.

In California, lawmakers have approved several bills since the late 1990s that limit when teens can drive and who they can carry, prompted by studies showing motor vehicle crashes as the main cause of teen deaths in the U.S.

Lawmakers passed a 1997 bill that imposed new rules on teens with instructional permits and provisional driver’s licenses for the first 12 months. A 2005 measure tightened limits on nighttime driving by teens and the carrying of fellow passengers.

Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, the chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, recently introduced AB 63, which would extend rules on provisional drivers to age 21. Frazier has carried several bills on teen driving. In 2000, a vehicle collision killed his 20-year-old daughter and injured his 17-year-old daughter.

Teen drivers

The percentage of California drivers who are teenagers has steadily declined over the years for various reasons, such as changing habits, new laws and cost. The 3.3 percent of licensed drivers who were 16-to-19 years old in early 2016 is a little more than one-half the percentage 35 years ago.

Charts of teen driver statistics 
Sources: Calif. Dept. of Motor Vehicles, Calif. Dept. of Finance, Federal Highway Administration
NATHANIEL LEVINE nlevine@sacbee.com

Did you know that when you send or receive a text you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds? At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.

Data Tracker is a regular feature that breaks down the numbers behind today’s news. Explore more trends at sacbee.com/datatracker.

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