SPANISH FORK — When Shaun Black became a driving instructor seven years ago, many of his students had just celebrated their 16th birthdays and were eager to get their licenses as soon as possible.
These days, most of his students are in their late teens and early 20s, and many of them don't even want to be there.
"Learning to drive is less of a rite of adulthood," said Black, who owns Independent Driving School. "It's just a necessity, or their parents are making them."
The trend is one more way in which millennials differ from earlier generations. A survey conducted in December by Zipcar, an hourly car-rental service, found that 65 percent of people ages 18 to 34 would keep their phones over their cars, if forced to choose. The findings suggest the rising generation associates status with gadgets, rather than cars, according to the researchers.
But these changes may be rooted just as much in economics as in changing signifiers of social status.
The driving recession
Of all the factors behind the trend, the cost of owning a car appears the most influential, according to a review released last month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And a survey by The Allstate Foundation found that teens cited not owning a car or the costs of owning and operating a car as the top reasons they choose not to get a driver's license.
The greatest declines in teen drivers occurred during the peak of the Great Recession, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In 2008, just 30 percent of 16-year-olds had acquired a license, compared to nearly 50 percent in 1983, according to data from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
"At 16, most teens say they are interested (in getting licenses), but not as many are actually starting the process," said Chelci Vaughan, a spokeswoman for The Allstate Foundation, an independent, charitable organization funded by The Allstate Corporation. "At 18, those statistics did change. Still, at that time, 22 percent had not started the process."
In some areas, high schools have cut or rolled back driver's ed classes in light of budget cuts, leaving it to the teens and their parents to pay other driving schools for training. Many teens said they did not have a license because their parents were not available to teach them, Vaughan said.
An unexpected upside
The declining number of teen drivers has also dramatically decreased the number of teens killed in auto accidents, Rader said. The most recent data accounted for little more than 3,000 teen automobile fatalities in 2011, a 65 percent decrease from 1975.
Rader attributed some of that change to the adoption of graduated driver's license laws that place restrictions on novice drivers preventing them from driving with distractions, with young passengers or late at night. States that enact such laws see teen automobile fatalities decrease by 10 to 30 percent.
In general, when the age at which teens begin driving increases, teen automobile fatalities decrease, Vaughan said. Some early studies that considered graduated driver's license laws found small increases in automobile fatalities among 18-year-olds after the new laws went into effect.
"It appears that some of the increase in older teen crash rates is attributable to there being more novice 18- and 19-year-olds after the GDL program was implemented," Scott Masten, a researcher with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, wrote in an email. "That is, higher percentages of 18- and 19-year-olds are newly licensed drivers after the GDL program was implemented than was the case beforehand, and these inexperienced older teens crash more often while they are learning to drive."
However, fatalities in teens of all ages have decreased since 2007, Masten said, as the numbers of 18- and 19-year-olds on the roads have decreased, though not as dramatically as they have among 16- and 17-year-old drivers.
In fact, the economic recession appears to have reduced fatalities among all age groups, at least in California, Masten said.