Table of Contents

Sept. 2014, Vol. 51 No. 9

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The Decline in Teen Drivers: What it May Mean for Wyoming

Table and Figures

For several decades, obtaining a driver’s license represented a milestone in the lives of youths ages 15-19. It was a goal towards which youths worked, which was rewarded with “freedom, independence, adventure, and responsibility” (Virginia DMV, n.d.). But that is changing among today’s youths, nationally and in Wyoming. Obtaining a driver’s license may no longer be a priority for many youths, and this trend has ramifications for employers, educators, business owners, and the general public, now and in the future.

Since 2000, the number and proportion of teenagers obtaining a driver’s license have declined substantially in Wyoming and across the U.S. This article examines local and national trends and provides rich detail about young drivers in Wyoming.

National Changes

It is difficult to quantify the decline in young drivers nationally because there is not one universally accepted source for driver’s license statistics. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHA) annually publishes driver’s license statistics for each state. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cautioned that the statistics presented by the FHA were not suitable for research purposes “because of inconsistencies among states as to who qualifies as a licensed driver, and large, inexplicable year-to-year changes in counts in some states” (Shults and Williams, 2013).

Due to this lack of a reliable source of national driver’s license data, results vary from study to study. Nonprofit organizations, government agencies, for-profit businesses, and colleges and universities have recently published studies on this decline of young drivers. While all of these studies have the potential for limitations and biases, they all point to a decline in the number and proportion of youths obtaining a driver’s license nationally.

In 2012 the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAA) surveyed 1,039 18- to 20-year-olds in the U.S. Of those surveyed, 44% said that they had obtained a driver’s license within one year of the minimum age of licensing in their state, and 54% said they obtained a license before turning 18 (Grabowski, Tefft, and Williams, 2013).

Researchers from the CDC examined the results of the Monitoring the Future report from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, which they found indicated the proportion of high school seniors in the U.S. who reported having a driver’s license decreased from 85% in 1996 to 73% in 2010 (Shults and Williams, 2013).

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit research organization funded by the automotive insurance industry, found that the number of insured 14- to 16-year-old drivers declined 12% from 2006 to 2012 (IIHS, 2013).

Wyoming Statistics

The Research & Planning (R&P) section of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has access to several administrative databases, including Unemployment Insurance (UI) wage records and driver’s license files. Wage records is “an administrative database used to calculate UI benefits for employees who have been laid-off through no fault of their own” (Gosar, 1995). With these resources, R&P is able to publish precise, accurate counts of the number of young licensed drivers in Wyoming and calculate the proportion of the youth population who are licensed drivers or working at any time – something that has yet to be accomplished nationally.

In Wyoming, applicants can obtain an instructional permit at age 15 (WYDOT, n.a.). An intermediate license with limited driving privileges is available at age 16. Full driving privileges are available to those 17 and older, or those who are 16-1/2 and have completed an approved driver education course and have held an intermediate license for six months. This type of tiered structure is referred to as a graduated driver’s license (GDL). Wyoming adopted this GDL structure in 2005.

For the purposes of this article, young drivers are defined as those who are age 15-19 and have obtained a Wyoming driver’s license. The research used in this article does not differentiate between an instructional permit, an intermediate license, or a license with full driving privileges.

Figure 1

Wyoming’s youth population, the number of young drivers, and the number of resident youths working at any time all declined from 2000-2013 (see Figure 1). However, the number of young drivers (-23.5%) and the number of resident youths working at any time (-37.7%) decreased at much greater rates than the overall youth population (-9.8%). This indicates that a significant proportion of Wyoming’s youths had not obtained a driver’s license by 2013, and an even greater proportion did not work at any time.


The Table shows the proportion of resident youths who were licensed Wyoming drivers and the proportion of resident youths working at any time in Wyoming. In 2000, 86.7% (36,412) of Wyoming’s estimated youth population of 42,004 were licensed drivers. By 2013, the estimated youth population was 37,905, and 73.5% (27,873) were licensed drivers. The decline in the proportion of youths working in Wyoming at any time was even greater. In 2000, 79.8% (33,511) of the estimated 42,004 youths worked in Wyoming at any time. In 2013, just 55.1% (20,884) of the estimated 37,905 youths were employed at any time in Wyoming.

In a rural state like Wyoming, employment opportunities are often linked to the ability to travel for work. As noted by Leonard (2010), “in a mobile environment, labor markets do not respect county or state boundaries.” R&P publishes intracounty, intercounty, and interstate commuting data at http://doe.state.wy.us/LMI/commute.htm. One example from these data shows that in third quarter 2011 (2011Q3), 10,880 individuals commuted into Natrona County for work from another county or state (inflow), while 3,923 individuals commuted out of Natrona County for work (outflow). The lack of a driver’s license and the inability to travel may limit employment opportunities for Wyoming youths.

Why the Decline?

Several theories have been published regarding the shrinking proportion of young licensed drivers nationally. The CDC, IIHS, and AAA all cited national economic reasons for the decline in young licensed drivers. The Great Recession lasted from December 2007 to June 2009 (NBER, 2010) and many studies referenced in this article suggest that the decline in young licensed drivers began during this period. In AAA’s Timing of Driver’s License Acquisition and Reasons for Delay Among Young People in the United States, 2012, economic challenges were selected as three of the top five reasons by respondents as to why they did not have a learner’s permit before their 18th birthday (Grabowski, Tefft, and Williams, 2013). Of the 458 respondents, 33% identified “did not have a car” as a “very important reason” or “somewhat important reason” as to why they had not obtained a learner’s permit; 35% said “gas was too expensive” and 38% said “driving was too expensive.”

This theory is consistent with previous findings from R&P regarding the employment of Wyoming’s resident youths. Wyoming experienced an economic downturn that began in first quarter 2009 (2009Q1) and lasted through first quarter 2010 (2010Q1). During this downturn, younger workers were more likely to be affected by job loss than other age groups (Harris, 2013). This is illustrated in Figure 1 and the Table, which show that both the number and the proportion of resident youths working in Wyoming at any time declined substantially from 2008 to 2009. Since then, the proportion of resident youths working in Wyoming has continued to decline, and dropped nearly 25% from 2000 (79.8%) to 2013 (55.1%). Wyoming resident youths are competing for jobs with other segments of the population, such as older workers and nonresidents (Moore, 2013). If Wyoming youths are not working, it is not clear how they will pay for a vehicle, gas, insurance, maintenance, and other costs.

Financial constraints are not limited just to the driver’s license applicant; household income also appears to play a factor in youths ability to obtain driver’s licenses. The national median household income declined from $56,100 in July of 2007, prior to the Great Recession, to $52,300 in October 2013, nearly five years after the end of the Great Recession (Thompson and Smeeding, 2014). A lower household income may result in fewer opportunities to drive for youths who are dependent on their parents for financial support. Grabowski, Tefft, and Williamson (2013) found that young adults who were part of families with an annual household income of at least $40,000 were more likely to obtain a driver’s license or learner’s permit than those whose families had an average annual income of under $40,000. Of the 159 respondents with an annual household income of $40,000-$59,999, 87% had either a driver’s license or learner’s permit. By comparison, of the 230 respondents with an annual household income of $20,000-$39,999, 68% had either a driver’s license or learner’s permit.

Others have suggested that new and evolving technologies and changing social attitudes may also play a role in the decline of young drivers. Schoettle and Sivak (2011) studied driving trends in the U.S. and 14 other countries and found that countries with a higher proportion of Internet users also had lower licensure rates among young persons. The authors stated that, “access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people.” Youths who communicate electronically via social media may be interacting with their peers in different ways than in past decades.

Graduated driver’s license (GDL) laws also may have an effect on whether youths obtain a driver’s license. As stated earlier, in Wyoming an applicant can obtain a learner’s permit at 15, a license with limited privileges at 16, and then must take a certified driver’s education course before obtaining a full license. However, that same applicant could wait until he or she turned 17 and obtain a full license without first getting a provisional license. It is possible that youths could wait an extra year to obtain a driver’s license in order to bypass GDL regulations.

Potential Consequences

The decline of young licensed drivers in Wyoming and nationally could affect a variety of sectors, including employers, businesses, public safety organizations, and researchers.

Fewer Wyoming youths are driving or working. This could result in several challenges for Wyoming employers. If youths do not drive, it is unclear how they can reliably get to work. When youths don’t work during their formative years, they may not develop the tools they need to succeed in the workforce. They may not develop soft skills, which include communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism (U.S. DOL, n.d.). They may not learn how to develop a regular work routine or how to balance school and work responsibilities.

Research & Planning has conducted a New Hires Job Skills Survey since 2009. A new hire is defined as an employee who, during a particular quarter, started working for an employer he or she had not worked for since at least 1992, the first year for which R&P has wage records (Knapp, 2011). As a part of this survey, employers are asked, “How would you rate your overall satisfaction with this employee’s work skills (for example, cooking, customer service skills, welding, teaching skills, heavy lifting skills)?” Employers are given four choices: satisfied, unsatisfied, neither satisfied nor unsatisfied, or other. Through the New Hires Job Skills Survey, R&P has found statistical and anecdotal evidence that employers are not satisfied with the lack of soft skills in some of Wyoming’s younger workers.

From 2011Q4 through 2013Q3, the most recent period for which New Hires Survey data are available, Wyoming employers added an estimated 218,308 new hires; of those, an estimated 11.8% (25,760) were Wyoming youths age 19 and younger. For new hires age 19 and younger across all industries, 57.2% of employers said they were satisfied with the skills of those new hires, compared to 60.1% for all new hires across all industries.

New Hires Job Skills Survey results are available at http://doe.state.wy.us/LMI/newhires.htm.

Figure 2

R&P has demonstrated that within the next 10 years, there may be many opportunities in industries that traditionally pay well and have a high proportion of jobs that require a bachelor’s degree (Knapp, 2013). For example, as shown in Figure 2, an estimated 67.2% of all workers in Wyoming’s educational services industry had a bachelor’s degree in 2012 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012); however, 29.7% of those working in this industry were age 55 or older in 2013 (R&P, 2013). This means that within the next 10 years, nearly one in three workers in this industry will reach the traditional retirement age of 65, which could result in a substantial number of job opportunities. Other industries will experience this as well, such as public administration and health care & social assistance. If young workers are not developing soft skills and a strong work ethic in jobs earlier in life, they may not be ready to fill these types of jobs when the opportunities arise.

Businesses that rely on the patronage of younger customers may also be affected by the drop in young drivers. If youths are not driving, they may spend less time and money at places such as movie theaters and restaurants. A decline in young drivers could also mean a decline in automobile sales. In 2007, adults age 18-34 accounted for approximately 15% of all new car buyers; by 2011, this age group made up approximately 10% of all new car buyers (Plache, 2012). According to Plache, “with higher unemployment, lower income, and less education than previous generations at this age, it hardly comes as a surprise that these younger adults have failed to buy new cars at the same rate as their predecessors.” This decline in automobile sales appears to support the idea that the decline in young drivers is related to economic challenges faced by young drivers and their families.

The decrease in young drivers may also pose a threat to public safety. According to the CDC (2012), GDL systems “are designed to delay full licensure while allowing teens to get their initial driving experience under low-risk conditions.” However, if Wyoming teens can wait until they turn 17 and obtain a driver’s license without first obtaining a learner’s permit or provisional license, is the state’s GDL program succeeding in making young drivers safer drivers?

Finally, the decline in Wyoming youths obtaining driver’s licenses may impact the quality of the data published by R&P, which has been tasked with the “collection and analysis of data necessary for the long-term effects of the Hathaway student scholarship program on Wyoming high school students” (HB0001-General government appropriations, Section 326 [d]). The intent of the collection and analysis of these data is to learn more about the “employment, location of employment, and earnings level after leaving a post-secondary education program at a college or the university” (Session Laws of Wyoming, 2008, Ch. 95). If youths do not obtain a Wyoming driver’s license, tracking their progress into Wyoming’s workforce will present a challenge to R&P. This could make it more difficult to evaluate the success of programs such as the Hathaway Scholarship.


The decline in young drivers in Wyoming could have very real consequences for this state. As demonstrated in this article, a decline in licensed young drivers and workers may affect employers, businesses, public safety organizations, and researchers, among others. An individual who delays obtaining a driver’s license through his formative years may be passing up valuable learning experiences. Likewise, an individual who does not gain work experience as a teenager may limit her professional growth if she does not develop a strong work ethic and learn the soft skills that employers require. This topic will continue to be an area of study for R&P.


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