Gen Y is driving less than the rest of us, but why?

Young woman driving

"America's Generation Y Not Driven to Drive," a July headline announced in the automotive trade publication Automotive News.

This isn't a new story. It has been repeated more than once the past few years.

The truth is, driving a car doesn't seem as important to younger people today as it did to their grandparents or even their parents.

When I turned 16, several decades ago, I was expected to get my learner's permit, take driver's ed and get my license.

There was no ambivalence, no doubt.

My parents expected it; my friends expected it; I expected it.

The car was a major element in the average teenager's social life.

It represented privacy, freedom and maturity.

Driving a car was the dividing line separating being a kid and being a young adult.

All of that apparently has been unwinding during the past decade.

The thrust of the story was that, for a number of reasons, young people between the ages of 16 and 34 represent a growing trend among Americans to drive less, shun car ownership and even avoid or postpone getting a driver's license.

The evidence is everywhere.

In its publication The Next Generation of Travel, the Federal Highway Administration reported that, on average, vehicle miles traveled for the 16-30 age group fell 25% from 2001 to 2009.

In 2009, the average was 7,319 miles, down from 9,748 in 2001.

Some of this decline, the report said, can probably be blamed on the 2008 recession, with more than a third of young people ages 18 to 29 still either underemployed or out of work.

They just don't have the money for gas or insurance, even if they have access to a family car.

But the trend goes deeper than simply younger people not driving as much.

Automotive News also reported that the number of 16- to 34-year-olds with a driver's license dropped about 5% from 2001 to 2009.

These are kids who arguably don't even want to drive.

This trend is not only spooking carmakers concerned about future sales, but also federal and state governments as they watch yet another tax-revenue stream dry up.

So what's really going on?

Some experts speculate that today's youngsters are more in tune with their environmental responsibilities and don't want to do anything that might have a negative impact.

Others think that kids are busier today, and some just don't want to take the time to learn to drive.

Still other observers say social media have replaced the car as this generation's central social catalyst.

Why do you need a car for privacy when you can sit in your room texting your BFF? You don't have to go see your friends; you can Skype them.

I put a lot of stock in the social media argument; however, I think it goes beyond even that.

I belong to another school of thought, really: Why bother with the whole "driving thing" when you can rely on someone else to do it?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be the one behind the wheel. I wanted to be the driver and enjoy the self-image boost of being in control.

I don't think that matters to a fairly wide swath of today's younger generation.

They'd rather sit back and have someone else take the responsibility and do the heavy lifting.