Some states have enacted graduated driver’s license (GDL) laws as a way to try and curb teen deaths. The basic premise of GDLs is to draw out the learning process and gradually introduce more freedoms behind the wheel.

How do graduated driver’s license programs work?

Though the details vary from state to state, typically GDL programs set a minimum age of 16 for a learner’s permit. From there, teens will have a mandatory waiting period, usually 6 months to a year, before they can apply for a provisional license with certain restrictions. During the permit phase, teen drivers must log a certain amount of supervised driving time (usually between 30 and 60 hours) in order to apply for a provisional license.

The provisional license usually sets certain restrictions, which again, vary by state, and may include things like…

  • A limit on the number of people a teen can have in the car
  • Prohibitions against driving with other teens
  • The use of cell phones while driving is banned for provisional drivers in 30 states, even if state law allows cell phone use
  • Restrictions on nighttime driving
  • Restrictions on where they can drive (to and from school, a certain distance from their house, etc.)
  • Heavier penalties for driving violations
  • Some states have even snuck in requirements that they keep up a certain grade point average or must stay in school to maintain a license.
  • Or other rules designed to diminish the common teen driving risks.

From the provisional license, a teen applies for a typical unrestricted license. Most states set a minimum age of 18 to apply for the unrestricted license. To read about the particular laws for your state, visit http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/license laws.html

The Pro’s & Cons of GDL Laws

The GDL craze is currently sweeping the nation. Also states have passed laws implementing some type of tiered licensing program, and Congress is even considering a bill that would create National standards for GDLs. But like most safety crusades, it’s quite probable there’s a lot more hot air than benefit from these laws.

The benefits of GDL programs

One commonly cited study found that GDL programs may reduce fatalities by around 11% and injury crashes by 19%. Proponents argue that GDLs save lives by drawing out the learning process, implementing certain safety restrictions, and making teens work harder for their license.

Reasons to be cautiously skeptical of GDL laws

We’re far less convinced about how effective these laws are. For one, although early studies have indicated a drop in fatalities in areas with GDL programs, more recent studies have failed to consistently replicate this result, showing that they’ve had no effect at all. Some areas with GDL programs have seen their fatality and accident rates tick back up after an initial decrease. This calls into question whether GDLs produced the earlier benefit or whether normal statistical fluctuations are responsible.

More importantly, there’s a statistical trick involved in much of the research on GDLs: By delaying licenses or making teens jump through hoops to get one, less teens are getting their license and those that are aren’t driving as much, which is merely pushing the learning curve into other age brackets. This can make your numbers look pretty in studies, but it doesn’t necessarily accomplish any real safety benefit.

“You have shifted novices who would be 16 and 17 in the past to 18 and 19,” says Scott Masten, a research manager at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Jeffrey Nadel, another skeptic and vice president of the National Youth Rights Association, says that “We are looking at this solely in terms of age and not experience in driving.” Many have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of such an approach. Masten notes that this means young adult drivers are “just not as experienced as they were in the past.” This may mean postponing independence or creating more novice drivers at an age when teens are on their own. Psychologist Robert Epstein cautions against this delayed approach, saying that “we are making it harder for (teens) to enter the adult world. We are teaching them to be helpless, be dependent and feel entitled.” (Alcindor, 2012) Many teens have been postponing a license because of the hurdles involved, relying instead on parents and other adults to shuttle them around.

It’s not that GDL programs are inherently bad…the focus on more driver’s ed time and more training are goals we fully support. We just have concerns about the way these laws are implemented, and believe the safety benefits may be overhyped. Regardless of whether or not GDLs are effective, they are the law in many places, and parents and teens must adhere to these guidelines.

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