Have graduated driver's license programs been successful? (Q&A)

Neil Bartlett

All 50 states have graduated driver's licensing programs, which enable young drivers to safely gain more driving experience. These programs vary from state to state but, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, they typically involve three stages:

graduated driver's license programs
  • Learner stage. The young driver is supervised while driving before taking a test.
  • Intermediate stage. This stage limits unsupervised driving in high-risk situations. For example, the young driver might have a curfew or isn't allowed to have any passengers.
  • Full-privilege stage. The young driver now has a full driver's license.

Anne McCartt is senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in Arlington, Va., and she has worked in highway safety for more than 25 years. One of her areas of expertise is teen drivers and graduated driver's license programs (GDL). We asked her to talk about whether these programs have really helped curb teen crashes and deaths, which state has the best graduated driver's license program, and how parents can help their teens become responsible, safe drivers.

How many states have GDL programs?

They're in all 50 states. The first one was implemented in Florida in 1996. The idea behind GDL programs is to ease young drivers into driving. That way, they gain experience and maturity before they're in situations where they have to make more complicated decisions.

Have young driver deaths and crashes decreased since states adopted GDL laws?

Yes. GDL programs have been amazingly successful, (which is) rare at this point in highway safety. The evidence is clear. There are dozens of studies now that show these programs have reduced crashes by 20 to 40 percent. That's a very big reduction in crashes in a group that's very high risk.

What are current GDL program best practices? Which parts of the program have proven most successful?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute studied how the various components of GDL laws affect the rate of fatal crashes. We uncovered five components of GDL programs that carry the most impact:

  • The permit age.
  • The driving age.
  • The amount of supervised driving during the learning stage.
  • A night-driving restriction during the intermediate stage.
  • Limiting teenage passengers.

The age a driver can obtain his license (and) night and passenger restrictions have the strongest impact on reducing fatal crashes.

What role do parents play in these programs?

They play a huge role. I don't think (parents) always recognize how big an influence they have. They decide when teens start the driving process. They choose the vehicle the teen will drive. They're the chief enforcer of GDL rules. If they feel it's warranted, they can place tougher restrictions on their teens than are required by their state's GDL laws. Parents are also the main driving teachers. It's important that they accompany their teen as much as possible and in all kinds of driving situations.

Some research has suggested that parental involvement makes a measurable difference. One telematics study using an in-vehicle monitoring device detected when teens suddenly braked or accelerated, were speeding or not using safety belts. The study showed that teens drove more safely when parents were notified when their teen violated the rules. But it's not enough to put a device in your teen's car and hope that will keep them safe. You have to stay involved.

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