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IS ECONOMY DRIVING CALIFORNIANS OFF THE ROAD?

The number of licensed drivers in California dipped last year for the first time since the Department of Motor Vehicles started keeping records during World War II.

Officials suspect the decline, which was most pronounced in Los Angeles County, is likely the result of a bad economy, a new law and the end of free drivers training.As of December 31, 1994, there were 20,118,100 licensed drivers in California, down from 20,182,200 the year before.

In Los Angeles County, there were slightly more than 5.4 million licensed drivers in 1994, compared with 5.5 million in 1993 - a drop of 90,900.

San Diego and Orange counties took distant second and third places, with decreases in licensed drivers of 4,900 and 2,800, respectively.

The biggest gainers were Riverside County with an increase of 6,000 licensed drivers, San Francisco County with 4,300, and Placer and Sonoma counties with 3,600 each.

DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff said signs of a dip were in the air well before the numbers were counted.

"We were not expecting it, but we were not surprised, because for some years, the rate of increase of drivers in California has been tapering off," he said.

The cause of the decline, Noss-off said, is more difficult to determine.

The scaling back or shutdown of entire industries in California has driven many people out of the state, sending their cars and their driving privileges with them, Noss-off said.

The same economic strains have kept teenagers and young adults at home longer, he said. People 19 years old or younger, representing roughly 4 percent of California's licensed drivers in 1991, are showing up in smaller numbers at DMV's driver's test counters.