a yellow drivers licence animated gif goes through a door to a city street with trees and an alcohol store
Driver’s licences open the door to so much more (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyOctober 17, 2022

The most liberating (and conflicting) piece of plastic I own

a yellow drivers licence animated gif goes through a door to a city street with trees and an alcohol store
Driver’s licences open the door to so much more (Image: Tina Tiller)

For better or worse, a car-dominated transport culture makes getting a driver’s licence a nearly-ubiquitous rite of passage – but it might not always be. 

I got a new piece of plastic a few months ago. It was very exciting, mostly because it meant I could stop making self-deprecating jokes about my younger siblings getting full driver’s licences before I had even gotten my restricted, and also because it meant I didn’t have to practise driving anymore, a process I found boring and unpleasant (I live a very privileged life). 

My new licence was less of a big deal to our transport regulator. “From our point of a view, a driver’s licence just means that you are competent to drive a motor vehicle on our network,” says Neil Cook, deputy director of land transport at Waka Kotahi. But getting a restricted felt like so much more than that, like I was more of an adult just because the card in my wallet was a different colour. Cook’s children are currently getting their licences: from a legal, regulatory perspective, licensing is a bureaucratic process, but he isn’t unaware of its cultural power. “It’s a rite of passage, a big marker of entering adulthood with more independence,” he says. 

Susan Wardell, an anthropologist at the University of Otago, says rites of passages are “about shifting a social role or a social status,” an important way for people to be acknowledged as adults in society. “It might be bureaucratically defined, but getting a licence is a social state as well,” she says, agreeing that there is a ritual aspect to licensing. 

Formally, a rite of passage has to have a structure, set stages: before, during, and after. These structures can be mapped onto the process of getting a driver’s licence, Wardell says. The process of application separates the applicant from their ordinary world; the test itself is a kind of intense ordeal, and the licence received at the end – assuming a successful test – returns the individual to society, but with a new social role bequeathed by their upgraded licence.

hazy purple sky and a broad motorway filled with cars in the early morning
A traffic filled Auckland motorway: many New Zealanders depend on cars for transport. (Photo: Ross Land/Getty)

“There’s a pattern to getting a licence – the emotional anticipation of booking your test, the nerves to share your results, but it’s not just a bureaucratic process, there’s a broader meaning behind it too,” Wardell says. It’s this broader significance, the way in which a driver’s licence is more than itself, that made getting one feel so significant to me and no doubt to the thousands of other people sitting on plastic chairs in VTNZ buildings around Aotearoa. 

Among New Zealand’s diverse cultures, a driver’s licence is arguably one of the more universal rites of passage, with 100,000 people getting either restricted, learner’s or full licences each year. Most of those in the first two categories are under age 25. While Waka Kotahi manages driver’s licences as a way to ensure that people steering two tonnes of metal and glass around at high speeds have the basic skills to remain in control, having a driver’s licence unlocks far more than this. 

“There’s a philosophical discussion to be had about the fact that the principal form of ID to purchase alcohol is a driver’s licence,” says Cook. “It’s perhaps a little ironic.” But it’s not just good for purchasing judgement-impairing substances and going to clubs; a licence is a form of ID you can use at a bank or to enrol to vote. Being able to drive is a requirement of many job applications, too. 

“Whatever reason people choose to get a driver’s licence, our job is to protect the integrity of that system,” says Cook – and it’s those rigorous checks which make driver’s licences a powerful form of ID. Waka Kotahi is keenly aware that there are barriers to accessing driving licences, and Cook rattles some of them off for me: Geography, for starters, because not everyone lives close to a testing centre. Some communities lack easy access to a secondary ID like a birth certificate, required to validate a licence. A lack of fluency in English or mental stress can mean that otherwise competent drivers do poorly in tests. Learning to drive requires a willing adult with time and access to a car (which was the main reason I procrastinated, having moved out of home before learning to drive). While Waka Kotahi can subsidise the testing fee, the cost of fuel to practise may be prohibitive. “We want to figure out ways to make that easier for people,” Cook says; he’s hopeful that a recently announced $86m cross-government programme can address some of these barriers. 

Driver’s licences didn’t become expensive signifiers of alcohol and freedom overnight. Once upon a time cars looked more like horse drawn carriages with motors attached, and driver’s licences were slips of paper issued by city councils. Plastic licences with photos were only introduced in 1999. “These paper examples just say: can you drive? Yes or no,” says Chelsea Renshaw, a transport curator at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat). She shows me a licence from the 1930s. The paper is thin and delicate. The driver’s name is handwritten. It wouldn’t be acceptable as a form of ID at any bank or bar today. 

a white man and woman wearing masks in front of a vintage car
Motat’s Chelsea Renshaw and Todd Dixon with part of their collection (image: Shanti Mathias)

A culture dominated by cars

Renshaw and exhibitions curator Todd Dixon see licensing as a piece of a wider story about how New Zealand has spent the past nine decades building a society around cars. They show me around Motat’s Accelerate exhibition, which displays a wide range of cars with different stories – an Aquada car that can be a boat, a Beetle that was driven across Asia. Explanatory text on the walls describes driving as a source of “freedom” and “independence”. 

“A big part of getting your licence is a feeling of control of your own destiny,” says Dixon. Outside, thousands of cars hum on the Northwestern Motorway, their drivers in control of their own destiny – or perhaps just stuck in traffic. “Kiwis love our cars,” Dixon adds. “It’s a huge part of our culture, from boy racers to the daily commute.” Dixon and Renshaw have put the cars on display, but hope that the museum can show how a love of cars has been fostered by decades of investment in motorways and roads, frequent petrol stations available for refuelling, and – of course – the driver licensing system. 

“When I got my licence, I could suddenly go to all these places I couldn’t get to on my own two feet,” says Nick Reid, who describes his Auckland upbringing as “car dependent”. Now, Reid is a member of youth climate action group Generation Zero, and works as a sustainable transport engineer in his day job. Getting a driver’s licence might be a rite of passage and an important form of ID he says, but it doesn’t have to be. 

“It perpetuates this idea that the car is dominant and all our roading infrastructure and cities should be created for cars,” he says. In the context of the climate crisis, the extent to which driver’s licences are integrated into the mechanisms of society, mediating many people’s relationships with the state (voting, the police)and economic systems (jobs and banks) seems like a way to reinforce a heavy carbon-producing culture. That another significant piece of ID and driver’s licence alternative, the passport, is embedded in fossil fuel burning air travel emphasises the same thing. 

a sunny day in christchurch, nick a cheerful young white man wears a black tshirt that reads 'generation zero' and holds the handlebars of his bike
Generation Zero’s Nick Reid makes his life work without a car. (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Is it time for a new rite of passage?

While the institution of driver’s licences might seem inescapable, that’s far from the case, says Wardell, the anthropologist. “Rites of passage change constantly,” she says. “They’re not a stable social phenomenon.” Fifty or 100 years ago, getting married (and often moving out of home at the same time) was a ritual nearly everyone participated in; with dropping marriage rates, that’s evidently no longer the case. Given a climate crisis, the high cost of living, and improvements in public transport, could the same happen to driver’s licences?

I put this to Cook. “The numbers of driver’s licences are holding relatively steady,” he says. For now, Waka Kotahi doesn’t expect demand to change. “New Zealand is a geographically spread-out nation and there’s a need for private motor vehicles that will continue for a long time to come.” Outside of big urban centres, he says, public transport is nowhere near good enough to replace cars and the licences which accompany them. 

Shanti's hand holds a brown leather folder with a kiwi logo and the words "Auckland City Council Driver's licence 1933-34'
This licence from Motat’s collection shows how much the physical appearance of licences has changed over time (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

At Motat, curators Renshaw and Dixon have their eye on the future too. The advent of driverless cars, whenever it happens, might change how licensing works even if private vehicles are still a major form of transport, Renshaw says. “Do you still need the skills to drive a [driverless] car in case the systems fail? I’ll be interested to see how licensing reflects shifts in technology,” she muses, watching one of Auckland’s last trams take visitors to the second Motat campus. 

Driver’s licences are ubiquitous for now, says Generation Zero’s Reid, but there could certainly be alternatives. Many countries issue citizens with compulsory photo ID cards at age 16 or 18, often with only a small cost. The Kiwi Access card (formerly 18+ card) is another option, although it’s not in as widespread use as driver’s licences. But at a bigger level, Reid says that there should be ways to celebrate independence and the ability to travel that don’t rely on expensive, fossil fuel-burning vehicles. 

After our conversation, Reid and I walk to where we’ve parked our bikes. Reid is still thinking of how young people could celebrate independence and mobility without needing to drive. I don’t intend to ever own a car, I tell him, but there’s still something irresistible about the piece of plastic in my wallet and the possibilities it contains. Reid, who also lives car-free, knows just what I mean. “Licences are only a big deal in a low-mobility, high-car society,” he says. “Maybe the real rite of passage could be taking a train to a different city, travelling by yourself.” He unlocks his bike, and rides away. 

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