Why Aren’t Young People in the U.K. Learning to Drive Anymore?

Has this generation fallen out of love with the automobile or are there other factors at play?

byBen Wildeboer|
Culture photo

The total number of folks under 25-year-old taking their driving test has fallen by 20 percent (from 1.8 million to 1.5 million) in the last 10 years, according to leading U.K. automotive consumer website honestjohn.co.uk. With the population increasing, this means that there’s been a real drastic reduction in the number of young people who are choosing to learn to drive. 

For a bit of context, here’s a simplified breakdown of how to start driving in the U.K.:

  1. You must be at least 17 years of age.
  2. You must apply for a provisional driving license. This has a nominal admin charge.
  3. You must sit and pass a theory test comprised of a multiple choice quiz and an interactive “hazard perception” exercise. This is around $130 each time and can only be carried out at an official test center.
  4. Once you have passed your theory test, you are able to book your practical driving test. This also costs around $130 and is around an hour or so driving around with an examiner alongside you.

The practical test is pretty thorough and as such, requires a fair amount of practice. The U.K. average at the moment is apparently 47 hours, with an average cost of around $40 per hour—this means that all said and done it will cost the average person over $2000 just to be granted with the little card that says you are legally allowed to be in control of a car.

Unsurprisingly, Honest John Managing Director Daniel Powell puts the recent reduction in new drivers down to young people "being priced out of learning to drive."

I passed my test just over 10 years ago—as soon as humanly possible, just 66 days after my 17th birthday. I was lucky enough to have learned how to control a car at an early age and had already been riding a moped for a year on the road (which you can do in the U.K. at 16) so didn’t need much practice. I genuinely couldn’t wait to enjoy the freedom and independence being able to drive myself around would grant me—it’s something I had been yearning for ever since I was about 8 years old. Here's a sweet picture of 17-year-old me looking like a total badass with my Rover 200 diesel.

17-year-olds aren't choosing to learn to drive anymore, Ben Wildeboer

As a car obsessive, I’m perhaps not the best example, but the vast majority of my peers—male and female—all started to learn as soon as they turned 17 as well and most had passed before their 18th birthday.

The biggest issue with becoming a young driver in the U.K. is and has always been car insurance. It’s a legal requirement and even the most basic insurance is expensive. When I was 17, I paid about $2,600 dollars to insure the car you see above—an 8-year-old diesel hatchback with 100bhp that I’d bought for about $1600. By the looks of it though now things are much much worse, with most 17-year-olds regularly getting insurance quotes of $10,000-plus per year.

It would be easy to wax lyrical about how in these days where climate change is now part of the school curriculum and the car is demonized in most of the U.K. media, the young population is totally disenfranchised from this world and these machines we so dearly love. I think though that it's much simpler and that Powell is right, if you have to commit $12,000-plus before even purchasing your car (which will undoubtedly be a $1000 shitbox) why would you even consider it?

What this means for the U.K. economy, it’s road network, or it’s automotive markets I have no idea. I’m just glad I got it sorted when it was still at least vaguely financially viable.