Why Aren’t Teens Getting Their License at 16? Three Reasons.

Many teens are no longer heading to the DMV on their 16th birthday to get their license. In fact, quite a few are putting off getting their driver’s license until 18 or even later. While experts can’t pinpoint one single cause for this decline, there are several factors at play contributing to the shift.

Three predominate reasons why teens are delaying getting their license include:

  1. Increased licensing requirements and restrictions.
  2. Costs.
  3. Shifting societal and peer perceptions about driving.

In this post, we’ll discuss each of these in a bit more detail.

The Dramatic Decline of Teen Drivers

Infographic: Americans Get Driver's Licenses Later in Life | Statista













The number of 16-year-olds getting their license has sharply declined over the past three decades. In fact, only 25% of the US teen population gets their license at 16, compared to 46% in the ’80s.

Roughly 60% of 18-year-olds in the US have their license. This is a clear spike from the 16-year-old population. Even so, consider that in the ’80s, 80% of 18-year-olds had their license.

By the time we arrived at the 35-39 age group, the decline is much less pronounced. Most of the population has their license by the time they reach their mid-30s.

Reason #1: There are a Lot of Requirements to Get your License at 16.

If you want to get your license at 16, be prepared for extra work and restrictions. Things got tougher starting in the 1990s, when all states enacted some form of a graduated license program to combat teen-involved crashes. Along with that, many states made it tougher to get your license at 16 or 17. The good news is that these stronger laws have been extremely effective at saving lives. However, these laws may also appear as hurdles some teens aren’t eager or able to clear.

The table below outlines the differences between getting your license at 16-17 and 18 in Washington State:

Getting your License at 16 or 17Getting your License at 18
Learner’s PermitRequired for 6 monthsOptional
Driver’s EdRequiredOptional
Supervised Driving Practice50 hours (10 at night)Optional
Pass Knowledge & Drivers TestsRequiredRequired
Graduated License RestrictionsYesNo

That’s right. If you wait until you turn 18, you do not need to attend driver’s ed or complete a set number of supervised driving hours. Plus, if you pass your tests and are issued a license, there are no restrictions on the number of passengers you can carry or hours you can drive. You’ve bypassed the graduated licensing process.

Clearly, some of the added restrictions and requirements could be a deterrent for young teens to pursue their license at 16. For some families, having their child wait until 18 makes the most sense.

Reason #2: It Costs a Lot to Drive.

It costs a lot to drive in Washington State.

Consider some of the expenses associated with having a 16-year-old-driver:

Driver’s Ed.

In the past, driver’s ed was typically offered at high schools as part of their curriculum. Thanks to budget cuts and an emphasis on college-readiness courses, this is no longer the norm. In putting this post together, we looked at several local Puget Sound driver’s ed programs. We found that they averaged about $600 in cost.


Adding a teen driver can make a family’s car insurance premium spike. Apart from that, insurance premiums are increasing across the board. In fact, NPR recently reported that premiums surged 19% in 2023 from 2022. Many families are scrambling to budget that increase, let alone adding another driver.

Vehicle and Gas.

Which car will the teenager drive? Do you risk handing them the keys to the family car, or do they need their own, dedicated vehicle? Either way, this comes with costs. Plus, the high cost of gas.

Some teens are expected to cover the costs associated with driving once they become licensed. Even with a part-time after-school job, these expenses may pose too much.

#3: Changing Perceptions about Driving

Even if no real barriers exist, some teens are simply not motivated to get their license when they turn 16 anymore. Their perceptions about driving may differ from when their parents were in high school.

Some of the factors shifting attitudes about driving include:

  • Access to public transportation
  • Environmental/carbon footprint awareness among youth
  • More interactions with friends online versus in real life
  • Other priorities – school, friends, hobbies

And remember, currently only about a quarter of 16-year-olds have their license. Ultimately, there’s less peer pressure to get one as soon as legally possible.

Have Teen-Involved Crashes Declined?

Yes! Teen-involved fatality crashes have dramatically declined since the 1970s. Consider some of these statistics (source: IIHS and NHTSA):

  • In 1975, there were 8,748 teen-involved crash deaths; in 2021, there were 3,058.
  • Since 1975, teen male deaths have decreased by 69%. Female teen deaths have decreased by 55%.
  • Seatbelt usage has increased from 58% in 1994 to approximately 90% in 2018.

Studies point to the adoption of the graduated licensing requirements in the ’90s as being the catalyst for this sharp decline. However, teens are still overrepresented in fatal car crashes. Further, IIHS reports that the most dangerous years to drive are 16 and 17.

Is it Bad That Teens are Waiting to Get their License?

The delay of teens getting their license isn’t necessarily a bad thing for our roads and society in general. In fact, there are some potential benefits.

  • Reduction in collisions and insurance claims
  • Reduction in extra cars on the road
  • Better use of public transportation
  • Positive impact to the environment
  • Cost reductions for families

If your teen wants to wait to get behind the wheel, consider how that may be a good thing for your family. Is having an extra driver in your household a necessity? Or could you push things out and avoid some of the extra cost and effort of having your child get their license at 16?

If Your Teen Gets Injured in a Crash

Not every crash is the teenager’s fault. If your teen was hurt in a collision caused by someone else, please feel free to reach out to our compassionate, experienced injury lawyers. It’s important that their legal rights are protected. Insurance companies may be quick to assume teen drivers must have done something wrong.

There’s never a fee to call us or drop us a line to see if we can help.

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