IN the long years of driving my son all over the countryside, I clung to the idea that one day the wheel would turn. As the odometer ticked over millions of kilometres of sports days, school runs, teenage parties and family holidays, I imagined that the unpaid taxi driver would one day become the passenger. I fooled myself that I was building frequent driver miles I could redeem in a dissolute and drunken old age.
He turned 21 this month and I’m yet to see him in the driver’s seat. It turns out that he got his Ls only to provide proof of age to get into bars. He has racked up not a nanosecond of actual driving experience.
Jack is one of a new non-driving cohort for whom a licence is an optional extra, not a necessity.
In 1991, of NSW kids aged 20-24, 79 per cent had licences. By 2001 it had risen to 80 per cent. Yet by 2008 it had crashed to just 51 per cent and continues to decline. A new study in Victoria by Monash University shows the number of licence holders under 30 is dropping at more than 1 per cent a year.
Having a smartphone is more important to Gen Y than having a car in a world experienced increasingly online. They have less reason to leave their bedrooms than ever before. The once pervasive car culture of the US is also in decline. In 1978, nearly half of American 16-year-olds and three-quarters of 17-year-olds had driver’s licences, according to Department of Transportation data. In recent years, that has fallen to 31 per cent of 16-year-olds and 49 per cent of 17-year-olds, with the decline accelerating since 1998.
When I was 18, having a car (and a valid licence) meant freedom and independence.
One of my peers said, rather indelicately, that we got our licences to get away from our parents in order to have sex.
Driving songs like 1973’s Radar Love by Golden Earring unashamedly made this connection.
I’ve been driving all night, my hands wet on the wheel
There’s a voice in my head that drives my heel
It’s my baby calling, says ‘I need you here’
And it’s a half past four and I’m shifting gear
My ride was an ancient Mini Moke with no side flaps so this wasn’t much of an option, unless heavily intoxicated. No, the car symbolised more than just sex, but status and adulthood. Imagine my horror when I lost my P plates just weeks away from getting a full black licence.
My girlfriend at the time accidentally squirted a Macca’s thick shake all over me and then quickly asked me to make a left turn from the middle lane, right in front of a cop.
With me relegated to the passenger seat, the relationship was doomed. She ended up marrying my successor, who drove a big shiny car.
That period of being single, looking at my reflection in the bus window, was the first time I remember being depressed.
Jack suffers no such complexes. He’s living large on a Myki card around Melbourne’s public transit system, doing just fine with the ladies, I’m told. He estimates that up to 40 per cent of his mates have no licence. His brother Julian got his licence at 26, I suspect, only because it wouldn’t look good catching the bus on his honeymoon.
Jack says he and his mates live in “prime locations” – mum and dad’s houses in inner-city suburbs – where public transport is easily accessible. With superfast broadband, they do many things at home that previously required a motor vehicle.
His 20-year-old cousin agrees that driving is not so cool anymore. “I have my Ls along with most of my friends, but because of a lack of a car, money to sustain it and the inconvenience of parking and just city driving in general, it’s not worth it,” he says.
A survey of friends with Gen Y kids confirms this “failure to drive” trend.
“My 22-year-old has had a car for over a year now. He pays rego and insurance and still has no licence. He lends it to friends but asks no money in return.
“When asked if he’s over being dependent on others, he says he likes being driven around. He just goes with the flow and doesn’t get upset,” says one parent-chauffeur.
“My 24-year-old still only has L plates,” says another. “It might be partly her nature to not finish things off like her uni degree, but it’s also due to living centrally and working in the city.
“She walks everywhere and uses public transport,” she says.
Kids with a practical reason to drive, that is, they are involved in sporting pursuits that require the towing of boats or horse floats, still get their licences early, a boon to louche and irresponsible parents.
“It is so much easier having them driving, especially when I just lost my licence for speeding again,” says one.
Those who have their licences are invariably cast as the designated driver while the rest of the crew is free to have fun, says Jack. On longer trips, the lads chip in for petrol money, but mostly having a car is no longer an advantage.
This phenomenon fits neatly into the theory of “peak car”, which posits that vehicle kilometres per person travelled has peaked in at least eight major developed countries, including Australia.
In December 2008, researchers from the Brookings Institute observed that total vehicle miles travelled in the US began to plateau in 2004 and fell in 2007 for the first time since 1980. Per capita driving was following a similar pattern.
David Metz, the former chief scientist of Britain’s Department of Transport, suggested forecasts of growth were erroneous because a saturated peak level had already been reached.
Yet still in Australia we choose to build motorways, such as Sydney’s WestConnex and Melbourne’s East-West Link, in preference to public transport projects that are backed by data that is fast becoming unambiguous. The introduction of graduated licensing schemes to address the over-representation of drivers under 25 in fatal and serious accidents has influenced the drop in young licence holders. The schemes have delayed the opportunity to gain an unrestricted licence and introduced a compulsory minimum amount of supervised driving experience before a provisional licence can be obtained, but they cannot fully explain the cultural shift from cars.
Monash University research fellow Alexa Delbosc says kids staying at home longer is one factor. A lower proportion of Gen Ys having children and living independently is another.
“Having a family can be a motivator to get a driver’s licence and delaying this life stage may reduce pressure on young adults to get a licence,” she says.
The tabloid press continually highlights the growth of anti-social hoon driving in the suburbs. A 2012 Queensland study found offenders were overwhelmingly young white males.
Yet the majority of these offences took place in outer suburbs that are not well-served by public transport.
It’s the old Torana or walking for many of these kids.
So the figures show I’m not alone in playing driver to the prince into my late middle age. I seriously doubt whether he will ever ask me for the keys.
But then I shouldn’t complain – it’s reassuring I’m still useful for something.