Experts believe youngsters are being priced out of driving by soaring costs of insurance and lessons, and the situation may become more acute under plans to restrict licences.
Since 2003, the number of 17 to 21-year-olds in Scotland qualifying to drive has fallen 20% from 32,898 to 26,431 this year. The decline is sharpest among teenagers, particularly since the credit crunch, with the number of 17 to 19-year-old Scots passing their test down 28% since 2007 - compared to 18% for the UK as a whole.
The figures, obtained by The Herald under freedom of information laws, come as the UK Government prepares to tighten conditions for learner drivers. A government-commissioned report in October recommended setting a minimum 12-month learning period with 120 hours of lessons, raising the age a teenager can begin learning from 17 to 18 and imposing a night-time curfew on newly qualified drivers.
The shake-up comes on the back of ballooning car insurance costs, which have risen by more than 80% since 2010 for drivers aged between 17 and 22.
Neil Greig, director of policy for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, said: "It is no real surprise that numbers of young drivers are down. Longer time in education and higher costs combine to put them off. Insurance is the main factor and given the current state of the economy the cost of lessons can be off-putting too.
"We are still waiting for a green paper on new drivers so nothing is going to happen soon, but it is almost certain learning to drive will get even more expensive. So it might be a good idea to learn now if you are old enough."
The cost of getting a teenage learner driver on the road has been estimated at £5000, with lessons alone coming to around £700-£1000, depending on how many hours it takes to pass. The driving test itself costs £31 for the theory and £62 for the practical test, but since more than half of learners fail their first test, most will end up paying the fee a second or third time - with the cost of extra lessons adding to the expense.
A new driver's car comes in at around £1200 on average, while insurance typically starts at around £2500 for 12 months' third party cover but can be up to £4000. Young female drivers, who could previously rely on cheaper rates, now pay the same as men as a result of EU gender equality rules which came into force a year ago. The change saw the average annual costs for young women drivers rocket by £600 overnight.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said increased insurance was the "killer blow" for young drivers. "Young people have been priced out of the market," he said.
The decline raises concern at a time when Scotland has the highest youth employment rate in the UK.
A spokesman for the Scottish Chamber of Commerce said: "Access to transport is crucial to maximising education and employment oppor-tunities for young people, particularly in the more rural parts of Scotland. Against this background, any fall in the number of young people holding a driving licence is significant. It is therefore important that we understand why fewer young people are passing their driving test and if the cost of motoring is a significant factor, then more must be done to mitigate this."
Gavin Brownlie, chairman of the Driving Instructors' Scottish Council, said he believed learning to drive was still good value for money.
But he added: "It used to be that as soon as teenagers turned 17 they wanted to learn but I don't see that now. This generation is tending to wait until after they have graduated, but the older you are the harder it is to learn. A 22-year-old will usually need about 10 hours more than a 17-year-old."