Essential Facts About Graduated Driver Licenses (GDL)

Getting a driver license is a milestone that many teens look forward to. It represents freedom, mobility and the promise of getting their first car. But this new responsibility comes with a heavy price — young drivers are four times more likely to get into an accident than any other age group. Over the past decade, many states have adopted Graduated Driver License (GDL) programs designed to make the process more difficult — and with good reason.

How Bad Is the Problem?
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among adolescents: A little over 26,700 13-to-19-year-olds were killed between 2003 and 2007, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). This age bracket also causes more fatal car accidents than any other age group. These startling statistics have led state policymakers to develop graduated licensing systems that step new drivers up slowly to full-fledged driving privileges.

What Is a GDL?
The IIHS defines graduated licensing as a system that is designed to delay full licensure, while allowing beginners to obtain their initial experience under lower risk conditions. It is divided into three stages: a supervised learner's period; an intermediate period, which limits unsupervised driving in high-risk situations; and by a full-privilege driver license.

Florida was the first U.S. state to implement a graduated driver license program, introducing it in 1996. Since then, 47 states and the District of Columbia have implemented a three stage GDL program, as have provinces in Canada and several other countries. Arkansas, Kansas and North Dakota still lack an intermediate stage.

Why Is It Needed?
The need for a graduated licensing system stems not only from teens' inexperience behind the wheel, but also from their immaturity. Numerous studies have shown that the teenage brain, which isn't fully developed, is wired for more impulsive behavior. This can translate to speeding, driving drunk, ignoring seatbelts and many other dangerous driving practices. A stepped, or graduated, system for receiving a full license allows a young driver's judgment to mature, lowering his or her tendency toward risk-taking behaviors.

A 2008 report to Congress by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that younger drivers are not sufficiently experienced in hazard recognition. "They do not generally acknowledge inherently dangerous situations on the road, and therefore do not react appropriately." Delaying licensure allows the teen to have more time behind the wheel and to gain more experience in real-world driving situations. Older teens have had more time to hone their decision-making process and become safer drivers — thus reducing the total fatalities.

What Does It Take To Have an Effective GDL Program?
In a 2006 study, "Graduated Driver Licensing Programs and Fatal Crashes of 16-Year-Old Drivers: A National Evaluation," the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health identified the most common and effective characteristics that appear in GDL programs across the nation:

  • A minimum age of 15.5 years for obtaining a learner's permit
  • A waiting period after obtaining a learner permit of at least three months before applying for an intermediate license
  • A minimum of 30 hours of supervised driving
  • Minimum age of at least 16 years for obtaining an intermediate license
  • Minimum age of at least 17 years for full licensing
  • A nighttime driving restriction
  • A restriction on carrying passengers

More recently, many states and the District of Columbia have placed age restrictions on cell phone use during the GDL process, or banned their use altogether.

Do GDLs Work? The success of these programs has been well established. According to the highly regarded Bloomberg study, which used data collected between 1994 and 2004 by NHTSA and the U.S. Census Bureau, states that implemented GDL programs that include at least five of the aforementioned characteristics, reduced fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers by 18 percent. States that included six or more of the characteristics reduced fatal crashes in that age group by an even more impressive 21 percent.

As the figures would suggest, the more comprehensive the programs are, the lower the rate of fatal crashes among young drivers, especially 16-year-old drivers. The study indicates that GDLs have no lasting effect on drivers' behavior or driving environment within the ages of 20-24, and reduce fatalities only in the youngest age group.

The IIHS offered suggestions to increase a GDL's effectiveness further, such as requiring an exit exam before granting full licensing privileges, extending the restrictions of the intermediate stage to age 18 and delaying graduation to a higher level for drivers with poor driving records.

Are There Any Side Effects?
For better or worse, the increasing number of GDL programs nationwide has apparently caused a drop in the number of young drivers. Ten years after the adoption of GDL laws, the national rate of licensed 16-year-olds has dropped from 40.6 percent to 29.8 percent.

The decreases have been attributed to longer waiting periods and the increased difficulty that GDLs impose, plus the extra cost of private driver's education as high schools have progressively dropped such programs. Another reason for the decrease is that a number of teens — in an effort to avoid the GDL requirements altogether — are waiting to get their licenses until they are older.

What Do the Critics Say?
Since many teens are postponing licensure until a later age, critics of GDL have suggested that the program merely shifts the fatalities into an older age group. To support their theory, they've pointed to the fact that in states where GDLs have been implemented, there are more deaths in the 18-to-19-year-old-group than the 16-to-17-year-old group. GDL supporters, however, counter that the disparity is primarily due to the older teens driving almost twice as many miles as their younger counterparts.

To prove that the younger age group posed the greatest risk, the IIHS made all factors equal by calculating the fatal crash rate per 100 million miles traveled. Using this formula, the fatal crash rate was still the highest at ages 16-17. The rates climb even higher if the drivers are carrying passengers or driving at night. In sum, younger teens are driving less, but get into accidents more frequently. While the fatalities might appear to be greater in 18-to-19-year-olds, the actual risk of a fatal accident is much smaller.

As the figures show, GDLs are highly effective in what they're designed to do: allowing teens to gain experience and receive useful lessons on driving without being placed in full high-risk situations.

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