I was desperate to drive long before I turned 17. Like many of my generation, born in the late 80s and early 90s, I’d grown up on a diet of films in which cars played an important role. Whether it was the famous ending of Thelma and Louise, Elle Woods zooming off to Harvard in Legally Blonde, or the final scene of Cruel Intentions, I knew that driving was the embodiment of freedom – especially when it came to my favourite heroines.
My dream was to get in a car, hit the open road – which I always imagined to look like the American midwest rather than my local A41 – and feel the wind in my hair. I’d have the music on loud, I’d have nobody next to me in the passenger seat, and I’d be the star of the movie that was my life.
I’ve now been driving for more than a decade, and I still get that tingling feeling of liberation and excitement every time I get behind the wheel. I feel exactly as I did the second I got into my driving instructors’ car, aged 17: free.
The sad news is that the generation below me is missing out on this joy. A Department for Transport report has found that driving has declined dramatically over the past 20 years. While just under half of 17- to 20-year-olds had licences in 1992-4, that figure was 29% by 2014. And the number of 21- to 29-year-olds with licences also decreased, from 75% to 63%.
Academics from the University of Oxford and UWE Bristol believe the reasons range from financial hardship and the cost of keeping a car, to the delayed adulthood on gen Y and Z, and, most worryingly of all, the rise of digital communication beginning to replace face-to-face interaction.
It is understandable that learning to drive might not be top priority for a school-leaver facing £9,000-a-year university fees, but I think it’s a great shame. My friends and I followed the American tradition of getting part-time jobs at school to fund our third-hand cars. Learning to drive was a rite of passage, and, as young women, it was one of the most empowering things we could do. Instead of being reliant on parents, friends and public transport to get us around, we could do it ourselves. It gave us more agency over our lives: not only does being able to drive mean you can easily do an Ikea trip alone, or hire a car in a foreign country, it’s proof that you can take care of yourself.
For me, there’s nothing more empowering than driving alone, especially with the knowledge that in Saudi Arabia, after decades of being banned from the wheel, women have only just been given the right to drive.
Of course, the decline of driving is positive in one way. Air pollution is a huge problem in the UK and the environment will benefit from having less cars on the road. But there are ethical (and inexpensive) ways to drive. I have friends who sign up to schemes where they can occasionally hire a car without owning one, and others who created their own “scheme” by buying an eco-friendly car together and splitting costs.
And I worry we lose something with a generational decline in rates of driving, with tech more important to younger generations than cars. I hope that they find an opportunity to get behind a wheel and have a taste of the freedom that only driving can bring. Or, at the very least, sit down and watch a female road trip film – be it Britney in Crossroads, or Thelma and Louise – to understand just how powerful the open road can be.
• Radhika Sanghani is a freelance journalist and novelist
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