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Has the driving test gone out of fashion?

For a long time, a driving licence was a status symbol of freedom and independence that people wanted to make sure they got hold of as early on as possible. But since the 1990s there has been a significant decline in the share of young people who hold a driving licence. This raises the question: is this a general trend away from driving? Or are people simply taking their test later on? 

17.02.2021

  • Lifestyle

  • Mobility

For decades, a lot of young people dreamed of getting their driving licence as early as possible, buying a second-hand VW and speeding off to Italy on holiday with friends.

But those times are over. Priorities are changing, as national figures show: from 1994 to 2019, the proportion of under-25s with a driving licence decreased by a massive 13%. This trend is based on various factors.

Proportion of 18-24-year-olds in possession of a driving licence since 1994 (Switzerland, passenger car category B)

YearShare
199471%
200067%
201059%
201958%

Reason 1: The driving test is expensive and time-consuming

Do you remember how many driving lessons you had to take to pass your test? Nowadays the average is 20 to 30 – depending of course on whether you learn to drive in a city with its more complex traffic or in a rural area. Either way, getting your driving licence can easily cost between CHF 3’000 and CHF 4’000. That’s a major financial hurdle for a lot of youngsters today – exacerbated by the fact that school and vocational training now takes longer, so there’s a lengthier wait before that first salary payment arrives on the bank account.

What is more, practising on the road isn’t just expensive, it’s time-consuming as well: The Swiss Council for Accident Prevention BFU (Bern) recommends 3’000 km of accompanied practice driving – the equivalent of 11 times the distance from Zurich to Geneva.

« Learners are recommended to do 3’000 kilometres of practice driving »

Reason 2: The public transport infrastructure is constantly improving.

More frequent services, night trains, youth season tickets – these are just a few of the features that reflect the constant expansion of public transport. And the response in Switzerland has been very positive: public transport use is increasing, and with it the number of general subscriptions sold. Moreover, there are practical advantages to being a passenger as opposed to having to take the wheel yourself: “On the tram I can chat to my fellow students”, “On the train I can relax, listen to music and chat” – these are the kind of statements many are likely to identify with.

Reason 3: Public transport and walking are popular, while car and bike travel is declining

There has been a clear shift in day-to-day mobility patterns among the 16 to 20-year olds in particular. Today there is a definite focus on public transport and walking, while cars, motorbikes and bicycles are losing ground – albeit to varying degrees.

Changes in the choice of transport between 1994 and 2015 (Switzerland, 16 to 20-year-olds, domestic travel:

  • Walking  + 29%
  • Bicycle - 64%
  • Public transport + 42%
  • Car/motorcycle - 7%

Source: BFS/ARE, Mikrozensen “Mobilität und Verkehr”

The figures for bicycle travel are especially surprising, with a decrease by nearly two thirds. But there are plausible factors at work here. Firstly, people often prefer to get on the nearest bus rather than have to do the pedalling themselves. Secondly, young people in particular attach importance to spending as much social time together as possible – and it’s much easier to chat when you’re walking than if you’re riding a bike. Thirdly, the hazards involved in road traffic and the risk of theft/vandalism are key factors here too, as is the phenomenon of the “parent taxi” – whereby youngsters are increasingly chauffeured from A to B by mum and dad. And fourthly, micromobility (e.g. kickboards) falls under footpath use in the national statistics – so it counts towards walking rather than cycling. However, there are currently strong counter-trends: in times of Corona, many more people use bikes. And electric bikes have been booming for a while already. So it will be exciting to see where the journey goes.

Reason 4: Cars are no longer a status symbol

A range of different studies show that the automobile is no longer a status symbol, especially among young people. Smartphones and social media are more important than cars and a driving licence.

« The trend is shifting towards age 25. »

People are taking the driving test – but later on

As you can see: there are good reasons why young people are no longer rushing to the driving schools. However, there is no question of a trend away from driving in general. “When it comes to taking the driving test, it’s much more a case of putting it off until later,” writes mobility researcher Daniel Sauter in his study “Mobility among children and young people (2019)”. This is also confirmed by Bruno Schlegel, head of the Car Commission of the Swiss Driving Instructors’ Association SFV: “Within the statistical age range of 18 to 24 years, the trend is clearly shifting towards the upper limit of age 24.” This trend is particularly pronounced in larger Swiss cities, where well-developed public transportation networks mean that only one in two households now own a car. It remains to be seen whether the new regulation allowing 17-year-olds to drive will change anything – likewise whether the 6% increase in the number of young drivers in 2019 was just an outlier or whether the trend is actually being reversed.

Mobility fills the gap with its leaner driver scheme

Since there are now fewer and fewer households that own cars, many learner drivers have trouble getting the practice they need. This is where the Mobility learner driver subscription comes in: “Over the last six years, 22’000 people in Switzerland prepared for their driving test with Mobility,” company spokesman Patrick Eigenmann is pleased to report. Car-sharing vehicles ensure the scheme is available where youngsters need it most, he says: “In the towns and cities. That’s why we firmly believe the learner driver subscription programme will attract lots more users in the future.”

Sources include astra.admin.ch / nzz.ch / swissinfo.ch / srf.ch / rp-online.de / Daniel Sauter, Urban Mobility Research (various studies)

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