Study: The cost of teen driving hits low-income families hardest

A new survey by The Zebra reveals that teens from wealthy homes are 51% more likely to drive than their low-income peers.

Author profile picture

The Zebra

The nation's leading independent insurance comparison site

The Zebra is an independent insurance advisor and quote comparison site with headquarters in Austin, Texas. Utilizing its real-time quote comparison …

Author profile picture

Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

Ross h…

Don't overpay for your teen's insurance! Let us compare quotes for you

Location pin icon
No junk mail. No spam calls. Free quotes.


There’s a troubling divide between teens who can afford to get licensed and those who can’t. New research by The Zebra finds that the cost of driving impacts teens from lower income families far more than teens from middle and higher income households. Parents were more sensitive to these costs than teens themselves. That’s likely because parents are the ones stuck with the bill.

Key Findings

1. Low-income teens are far less likely to be licensed drivers than wealthy teens

2. If parents can’t afford it, teens don’t drive

3. Why having a teen driver can double a family’s driving costs

4. How families can reduce the high costs of teen driving

Key Finding 1

Teens From Wealthy Homes Are 51% More Likely to Have A License Than Low-Income Teens

Teen driving has long been considered an important rite of passage in the U.S., but The Zebra’s recent survey reveals a significant economic divide between teens who learn to drive and those who wait to get licensed.

More than 86% of teens age 16 to 18 from households making more than $100,000 per year were licensed or had a learner’s permit to drive. Meanwhile, only 57% of teens from households making $50,000 or less per year were licensed or permitted drivers. This equates to wealthy teens being 51% more likely to be licensed drivers than teens from low-income homes. 

 Teen Driving by household
Teens Licensed to Drive by Annual Household Income
Does the teen drive? <$50K/year  $50K-$100K/year $100K+/year
Yes (with license or permit) 57% 78% 86%
Yes (without license or permit) 5% 4% 1%
No (but plans to) 29% 16% 13%
No (not actively planning to) 9% 2% 0%

Researchers at the University of Michigan have tracked an overall decline in teen driving in the U.S. since 1999 when 87% of all high school seniors had a license. As of 2015, that number had fallen to 71%.[1]

Our survey findings show that while teens from high-income families are still driving at about the same rate as teens in 1999, licensure for low-income teens has plummeted far below average.

Low-income parents say cost is the number 1 reason their teen is not driving. High-income parents say cost is not a factor at all.

Parents across all income groups thought driving was costly, but only low-income parents said driving expenses prevented their teen from getting licensed.

In fact, 1 in 3 parents making less than $50,000 per year said their teen didn’t drive because their family couldn’t afford their driving-related expenses. Those costs affected 1 in 5 families in the middle income bracket, while no (zero) parents making $100,000 or more said cost was a reason their teen didn’t drive. The median household income in the U.S. was $61,371 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.[2]

 Teen driver parents
Key Finding 2

The Higher a Parent’s Income, the More Driving Costs They Cover for Their Teen

Much of whether and when a teen starts driving may have to do with who’s footing the bill. Only 33% of teen survey respondents said they had a job. The majority of parents at all income levels said they’re the ones who buy insurance, pay for car maintenance, and take care of repairs.

Parents Who Pay For Their Teen’s Driving Expenses
Expense <$50K/year  $50K-$100K/year $100K+/year
Car payment* 41% 50% 50%
Insurance 58% 80% 81%
Maintenance 59% 70% 76%
Repairs 55% 69% 73%
Gas 32% 53% 57%
Traffic/parking ticket 21% 26% 30%

*Survey did not specify whether car payments were for a shared family car or for the teen to have their own vehicle.
Teens were most likely to have to pay for their own gas and traffic/parking tickets. Even so, fewer teens from wealthy households had to cover these expenses than teens from lower-income homes.

Teens Who Pay For Their Own Driving Expenses:
Expense <$50K/year  $50K-$100K/year $100K+/year
Car payment 14% 6% 4%
Insurance 15% 6% 4%
Maintenance  12% 7% 4%
Repairs 11% 4% 2%
Gas 37% 22% 16%
Traffic/parking ticket 38% 33% 31%
Key Finding 3

Why Adding a Teen Driver Is Such a Huge Expense For Families: Teen Insurance

Most people, regardless of income, consider driving to be expensive. Cars aren’t cheap, and the costs for fuel, insurance, registration fees, and maintenance add up quick. But, if more than 90% of U.S. households already pay to own or lease a car, why is it such a big deal for families to add a teen driver?[3]

The short answer: insurance. While gas and car repairs cost about the same for everyone, the cost of insuring a teen driver can be two or three times as expensive as coverage for older, more experienced drivers.

 Teen driving insurance costs

Parents should brace for the cost of their policy to double when they add a new teen driver to their car insurance. As illustrated below, it costs the average single parent upwards of $1,700 more per year to add a new teen driver to their insurance. On their own policy, a teen driver would have to pay a staggering $6,647 per year on average for insurance.

What Car Insurance Costs For Teens
Age Teen added to parent’s policy* Teen’s own policy
16 $3,154 $6,647
17 $2,937 $5,749
18 $2,683 $5,033
19 $2,392 $3,438
Adult (without teen) $1,391  

*Premium reflects the average annual cost of a one-vehicle policy with one parent and one teen driver. 
These costs come to down to risk. Teens are far more likely to be in an accident than other drivers on the road. In fact, a study by NHTSA in 2011 showed that 75.8% of all teen-involved car crashes were caused by the teen driver making an error such as failing to observe their surroundings, being distracted, or driving too fast.[4]

Although many teens are clearly aware of these dangers (in fact, 1 in 4 teens is too scared to drive at all), these crashes account for just how expensive it is to insure teen drivers as they take to the road.[5]

The good news is that there are things parents can do to improve safety and lower their insurance costs.

Key Finding 4

How Families Can Reduce the High Costs of Teen Driving

While it’s clear that adding a teen driver can have a serious financial impact on families, most teens and their parents still believe that learning to drive is important. If your teen is ready to hit the road, here are a few tips to keep costs in check while encouraging safety.

Add your teen driver to your insurance policy ASAP. The cost of insuring a teen driver drops significantly over time, so help your teen start building their coverage history now. Ask your insurance company about potential discounts (like for good students), and always shop around for the best price on coverage when making a big change (or every year or so).

Set and enforce driving rules. State lawmakers have adopted restrictions to help keep teen drivers safe. These laws limit riskier activities like night driving, having other teens in the car, and texting while driving. Enforcing these rules will help your teen avoid scary mistakes and costly tickets that can significantly increase the price of insurance — especially for teens.

Choose a safe older vehicle. What car your teen will be driving has a significant impact on safety and costs. IIHS recommends choosing a bigger, heavier vehicle that’ll keep your teen safer if they get into an accident, especially one with electronic stability control, which helps drivers maintain control on slippery roads. Older vehicles additionally benefit from being less costly to insure than newer cars.


The Zebra’s report presents the findings of an online survey of 603 teens age 13-18 and 605 parents of teens (age 13-18) who live in the U.S. The survey was conducted by independent research firm SurveyGizmo from Nov. 1-6, 2018.

Additional sources
  1. Why Teens Still Don’t Want to Get a Driver’s License. Stateline

  2. Highest Median Household Income on Record? U.S. Census Bureau

  3. Factfinder. U.S. Census Bureau

  4. Prevalence of teen driver errors leading to serious motor vehicle crashes. Science Direct

  5. Study: 1 in 4 teens too scared to drive. The Zebra