We already know that people are driving less and owning fewer cars. As we have shown before, since the mid 2,000s both vehicle ownership and the number of kilometres travelled (VKT) have plateaued and then fallen in recent years on a per capita basis (VKT has fallen in real terms too). Even the Herald picked up that the vehicle ownership numbers were are dropping a few days ago.

Vehicle ownership

We also know that there are similar trends occurring in many other western countries with a lot of the evidence pointing to young people driving less. However while we are fairly sure that there generational changes occurring, so far we haven’t had much solid evidence about it. Of course the economy over the last few years hasn’t helped things so this made both Stu and I very interested in looking at other data which may help to confirm the trends we were seeing.

Both Stu and I had actually both been looking at this separately and both come to the conclusion that one of the important bits data that was missing was driver licences. For me the first port of call was to the Ministry of Transport where I found information on how many people in each age group held licences

Driver Licence Totals to June 2011

However having only the total number of licences in each age group at one point in time didn’t really help me. I really needed to see how the figures were changing over time so I put an OIA request into the NZTA who manage the licencing system. I recently received the information back however the data only goes back to 2003 as that is the oldest data available that the agency is confident of the accuracy of. It is also important to note that data is only for those applying for Class 1 (car licences) and that the numbers are for a full calendar year (1st Jan – 31st Dec). Most importantly the minimum age as raised on the 1 August 2011 and that has some significant impacts on the numbers. The changes were:

  • Learner licence stage increased from 15 years to 16 years
  • Restricted licence stage increased from 15½ years to 16½ years
  • Full licence stage increased from 16½ years to 17½ years (with completion of an approved advanced driving course) or 17 years to 18 years (without approved advanced driving course).

Since the minimum age being raised, the restricted tests have also been made harder and I have seen numerous stories about how the pass rate has dropped which is putting some teenagers off driving altogether.

With that out of the way, onto the data. First of all, here is the total number of licences issued by type. The drop over the last few years is partially attributable to the changes in the minimum driving age so I do expect it to come back a bit as those who were not 15 by August by August 2011 become old enough to apply. This should show up in the 2013 numbers.

Driver Licences issued 2003 - 2012

Things get more interesting when you start to break down the number of licences issued by age group. For this I’m just going to look at learner licences as it indicates a willingness to learn to drive. I’m not sure what happened in 2010 but it was effectively the low point in the number of learner licences issued. Perhaps the discussion around changing the minimum age in 2011 prompted people in older age groups who hadn’t yet got their licence to get one. This is shown in the graph on the left. Further while many of the age groups saw an increase in the total number of licences issued up until 2007, when comparing the numbers to the total population in each age group for each year, it actually represents a decline. This is shown in the graph on the right (I dropped off the older age groups from this graph).

Learner Licences issued 2003 - 2012

Lastly, the changes might not look that dramatic however when indexed to 2003 there is a definite downward trend with the notable and understandable exception of the 16 year olds. Once again I have removed some of the older age groups due to the noise they add to the graphs.

Learner Licences indexed to 2003

On its own this information is useful, but when combined with the trends we are seeing in the number of vehicle kilometres travelled and the number of vehicles owned it is clear that there is definite a shift occurring within our society. I guess what surprised me with this data the most is that it isn’t just young people who are applying for fewer licences but also the older age groups too.

For those that want the data, it is here.

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        1. I understand completely.

          Despite what Jon from Switzerland I appreciate what you guys do – keep up the great work.

  1. Wow, this is actually a major drop in licenses issued – the number of learners and restricted licenses issued has actually halved in the last few years.

  2. Would be interesting to see the trend if the economy ever picks up again. A small aspect maybe the increase in unemployed people who cannot afford to pay for license fees for example.

    1. eah maybe. But there is clearly an element of choice in this. Driving does not equal freedom for a sizeable chunk of younger people. This is a real cultural shift, a change, is new. Our investment decisions need to reflect this.

  3. This is kind of a big deal.

    As a matter of course, could you post the data as a good spreadsheet as well – since you’ve got to the effort to extract the data from the email :).

  4. Question guys,
    You show the numbers of licenses issued in your graphs. is that including 10 year renewals?

    The only time you show the total number of licensed drivers, is in the first table as at June 2011.

    So if you were to get and graph the total “active” licenses of all types by year and age group, would you see the same trend?
    – not just fewer younger drivers not getting licenses, but older (existing) drivers not renewing (for whatever reason, including death, leaving NZ for good, cost or simply no longer medically fit to drive etc).

    And if so, then all of which taken together would mean that its not just a generational shift, but a societal one happening as the VKT and Veh numbers indicate is the case.
    As VKT and Veh numbers show fewer vehicle km travelled compared to 2001 even as more Vehicles are on the road – compared to the base year of the top graph of 2001.

    And does VKT and Veh figures include trucks and other light vehicles used for work purposes or is it “private car” VKT and Veh numbers only?

  5. Amen to that!

    Discrete objects, such as, say, bottles of beer are ‘fewer’. I bought fewer bottles of beer today.

    Objects that don’t nicely separate into individual units, such as water are “less”. e.g. I drank less water today. My car uses less petrol.

    The word ‘people’ is an interesting one though, because it is a singluar noun, I think.

  6. The reason why the new license numbers have dropped because of the increasing difficulties of the tests for both Learners and Restricted and the increased costs to get the tests from the AA, and the fact that you cannot get licenses at the age of 15 anymore.

  7. You people! 🙂 This is a fascinating topic with huge implications for NZ transport, and a grammatical mistake is more interesting?

    Umm, this squares quite anecdotally with what I’ve seen. My little sister’s cohort are really slow on the uptake of licenses, especially compared to a decade earlier. The tests also require people to drive well, and within the law. Both those things are antethical to driving on NZ roads, as the behaviour of other drivers makes this difficult. They thus require quite deliberate and thoughtful driving; an exercise that will only be repeated in test conditions. It’s right that this is taught and tested, but it is hard if you’ve been taught by friends or family whose habits are within the normal range of NZ driver behaviour.

    Add to this slightly weaker pull factors, more expensive petrol, slightly more expensive cars (they’ll never again be as cheap as they were after import deregulation), and changing demographics, and a slide in registration is to be expected.

    How this affects the roading schemes which project ever-increasing driver numbers is pretty clear. It weakens their cases, some quite dramatically.

  8. They’ve also quashed the ability to sit on a learner or restricted license indefinitely. This has seen some people drop off (and quite rightly, these are only transitional licenses). I don’t have a number, but I believe it was actually quite large.

  9. The pre-2003 license data is available as a table in each annual edition of Motor Accidents in New Zealand which should be on the shelves of any university library. I’ll find my personal copies over the weekend and update the spreadsheet to see if the data is comparable.

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