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Editorial: Behind The Wheel; Surprising Trend in Driving Habits

It’s hard to remember a seemingly innocuous news story that was loaded with more intriguing demographic data and speculation than the one that appeared in Tuesday’s Valley News under the headline “New Role for Men: Back Seat Driver.”

In it, The Associated Press reported that for the first time, more women than men have driver’s licenses, reversing a gender gap that stretched back to the dawn of the automobile age in America. The 15-year study on which the story was based said that by 2010, 105.7 million women had licenses compared with 104.3 million men. Over that period, the share of men ages 25 to 29 with a driver’s license declined 10.6 percent, while the decline among women the same age was about half that much.

The co-author of the study, Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute, suggests that the trend, if it continues, could have big implications for safety, energy consumption and vehicle demand. That’s because women tend to purchase smaller, safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles, drive fewer miles and have lower fatality rates. (One could draw the conclusion that driving, like politics, might be an activity better left to women, although the early morning commute on Interstate 89 from Vermont into New Hampshire does not necessarily suggest to us that females are inherently more prudent behind the wheel than males.)

Just as interesting as the statistics is the suggestion that the decline in the number of young drivers, especially young men, might be attributable — are you ready? — to the Internet. This confirms our emerging suspicion that every trend in modern life can be traced back to digital technology, if one only looks hard enough.

Anyway, the speculation runs in two directions on this point. One theory is that, as Sivak said, “Internet contact is reducing the need for personal contact.” The other is that the danger of using digital media while driving is leading young people to use public transportation. We have no idea if either of these two propositions is true, but we certainly hope the first one isn’t. Virtual contact cannot possibly become a substitute for the personal variety without damaging both individual life and society’s well-being.

Other possible reasons put forth for the decline in male drivers is that today’s cars are too complex for the average young man to work on himself and that today’s young adults grew up not in the era of the open road but the one of congested highways. Both may have dampened the allure of car culture.

More depressing is the very real possibility that young men, especially, aren’t getting licenses because they are unemployed and/or are still living at home with their parents. The lingering effects of the Great Recession are playing out in many ways, obvious and — as in this case — perhaps less so. Although having fewer drivers on the road is undoubtedly a good thing for environmental reasons, the fact remains that unemployment and underemployment constitute a slowly unfolding disaster for young people, both those who want to start work directly after high school and those who have graduated from college. It’s time the country made it a priority to get these young people working.