Do Graduated Drivers License Programs Really Make Teens Safer?

All 50 states now have GDL systems — but that doesn’t mean everyone understands them. Find out how they work (and if they work).

Statistically speaking, teens aren’t the best drivers. When you combine a lack of experience with a typical 16-year-old’s sense of invincibility, accidents are bound to happen. And teen drivers have the highest crash rate of any age group.

Graduated licenses — an intermediate step between the learners permit and a full, unrestricted license — have been an effective solution. Depending on how strong and comprehensive the laws are, graduated drivers licenses (GDLs) have been shown to reduce teen car accidents by 10 to 30 percent.

But GDLs only work if drivers and parents comply. A recent New Zealand study found that 1 in 4 teen drivers on restricted licenses were involved in crashes, and 80 percent violated at least one restriction. In the majority of cases, the parents didn’t fully understand the conditions of the license and/or did little to monitor their child’s driving habits.

How do graduated drivers license programs work?

Graduated licenses are designed to let teens get the driving experience they need while avoiding circumstances that raise the risk of accidents. All 50 states and DC now require an intermediate period where teens can drive unsupervised under certain conditions. Though GDL provisions vary from state to state, the 5 main components are permit age, supervised practice hours, night driving, passenger restrictions, and the age at which a full license is issued.

Permit and licensing ages

Across the states, the minimum age for issuing permits and licenses ranges widely (from 14 to 16 years for supervised driving, and from 14 years, 3 months to 17 years for unrestricted licenses). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recommends age minimums of 16 for learners permits and 17 for intermediate licenses.

Supervised practice hours

How many of you remember your mom, dad, or adult sibling showing you where your blind spot was or how to parallel park? For most young drivers, this kind of instruction is crucial, if sometimes stressful, and most states require a minimum number of supervised hours before drivers can move on to their intermediate licenses. State to state, the minimum ranges between 0 and 70 hours (the IIHS recommends at least 65 hours).

Night driving restrictions

Since 40 percent of teen traffic fatalities occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., preventing teens from driving at night is one of the most important parts of the GDL law. Across the country, “night driving” restrictions can start anywhere from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Studies comparing the effects of no restrictions versus an 8 p.m. restriction show a 20 percent accident reduction with the 8 p.m. start time.

Teen passenger restrictions

Another key component of GDLs is passenger limit (since the distraction of driving with other teens vastly increases the risk of a crash). Teenage passengers are a factor in 50 percent of traffic deaths involving 16-year-old drivers, and the more teens in the car, the greater the danger. Banning teen passengers could reduce the fatality rate by 21 percent.

Does older mean better?

If the immaturity of 15- to 17-year-old drivers is such a big safety concern, wouldn’t it be better to put off driving altogether until they’re older? Not necessarily. A 2011 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, while fatal crashes among 16-year-olds dropped since the first GDL programs were implemented, crashes among 18-year-olds actually increased. The study’s lead author suspects that the older drivers simply waited until they were old enough to get an unrestricted license, rather than going through the GDL process. It’s also possible that those drivers didn’t get enough controlled practice on their own before getting fully licensed.

It seems a few extra years of maturity can’t make up for a lack of driving experience.

The bottom line

GDLs do make a difference, but only when young drivers get real-world practice both on their own and with adult supervision. Though teens may feel unfairly singled out and parents may feel inconvenienced by the laws, the research shows that 3-tiered systems save lives.

Did you or your teen driver go through a GDL program? Do you think it helped or was it just a hassle? Share your thoughts below.

Related links
Getting ready to add a teen driver to your policy? Get answers to your questions about teen drivers and car insurance.

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3 Responses to “Do Graduated Drivers License Programs Really Make Teens Safer?”

  1. James C. Walker
    August 9, 2013 #

    Does older mean better, or does it just push off the danger times to later ages when the restrictions are less or no longer apply at all? Someone who gets their first license at age 18 with minimal supervised practice time still has VERY FEW hours of experience behind the wheel. They may be a poorer driver than someone who got their license earlier with more supervised hours of driving with a parent or guardian.

    There is NO substitute for experience behind the wheel to educate drivers under all the many possible conditions and circumstances they will encounter.

    James C. Walker, Life Member-National Motorists Association

  2. Brent Bickel
    March 24, 2014 #

    In Colorado the GDL program is so confusing that you should really be a lawyer to figure it out. I can't believe that, with all the hassle, these programs only reduce accidents by 10% – 30%. States should take another look at these programs to focus on what works. After all, if you drive teens away until they can skip the program, (18 in Colorado), then you have a slightly older teen driver with no training. We should have reasonable programs that balance time, money and effort with results. In Colorado we we currently have is bureaucratic overkill.

  3. Lucy
    October 24, 2014 #

    Generally, how does a teenager's diagnosis of asperger's disease affect his auto insurance rate? Would it be better for the teenager to have his own policy? Lastly, what else could he do to decrease his monthly insurance rate?

    He is 17, graduated Georgia's required drivers' education.

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