Getting a driver's license was once the highlight of turning 16, but for several years now teens haven't been in such a rush to drive. The reasons for the delay aren't entirely clear, but new research suggests that it may be due more to economic reasons than social ones or, as some claim, to avoid graduated licensing. A separate study by the Institute shows teenagers in New Jersey, which has the oldest licensing age in the U.S., support the state's graduated licensing law, including a policy that applies new driver restrictions to all beginners younger than 21.
Often called the digital generation, teens today are growing up with the Internet, social media and mobile technology. Some have posited that this constant connectedness reduces teens' need to interact face to face with their peers, compared with prior generations who considered a license a ticket to outings with friends, transport to school and job opportunities. Others suggest that teens are waiting until they are 18 to bypass graduated driver licensing (GDL) requirements. Florida in 1996 was the first state to adopt a GDL system, which phases in driving privileges as beginners mature and gain skills.
In a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control study, researchers examined results from the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future survey to estimate the proportion of high school seniors who had a driver's license, as well as the proportion of seniors who didn't drive during an average week during 1996-2010. The survey is given to 15,000 seniors from 130 public or private schools in the U.S. each year.
The proportion of seniors who reported having a license fell by 12 percentage points, from 85 percent in 1996 to 73 percent in 2010. Two-thirds of the decline occurred during 2006-10 amid the recession.
The proportion of seniors who reported that they didn't drive during an average week rose from 15 percent in 1996 to 22 percent in 2010. The authors note that the proportion of seniors in this group climbed during 2006-09 after holding steady during 1996-2005.
Proportion of U.S. high school seniors
who reported having a driver's license
Proportion of U.S. high school seniors
who did not drive during an average week
Source: Monitoring the Future, 1996-2010
Compliance with GDL restrictions among
N.J. teen drivers with probationary licenses
|Percent of teens
who said they had...
|Driven past 11 p.m.
in the past month
|Done so 3
or more times
|Driven with more
than 1 passenger
|Done so 3
or more times
Fewer high school seniors have a license and those who do report driving less often than teens in earlier years.
Economic factors can affect the timing of licensure, the authors note. In a national survey of 15-18 year-olds conducted in November 2010 for the Allstate Foundation, most teens said they would like to get a license as soon as possible, but many hadn't started the process. This was the case for a third of 16 year-olds and nearly a quarter of 17-18 year-olds. Teens old enough to drive but not yet licensed cited not having a car and the cost of driving as leading reasons for the delay. Many also said they had no need to drive, were busy with other activities or their parents were too busy to teach them.
Meanwhile, some states are weighing whether to extend GDL to older beginners. In Connecticut, a three-month required learner holding period for beginners 18 or older took effect Jan. 1. Lawmakers in California this spring introduced a bill to apply GDL to drivers younger than 20. In the U.S., GDL primarily affects 15-17 year-olds. Only New Jersey imposes nighttime driving and passenger restrictions on older teens.
In jurisdictions that have adopted elements of GDL, overall crash rates among young teens have declined 20 to 40 percent.
A comprehensive IIHS study found that stronger GDL programs for 15-17-year-old drivers significantly reduced their fatal crash rates compared with weak programs. The study found no effect on fatal crash rates for 18-19 year-olds, so there was an overall benefit for 15-19 year-olds combined. A companion analysis by HLDI found that collision claim frequencies were lower not only for 16-17-year-old drivers but also for 18-19 year-olds (see Status Report special issue: teenage drivers, May 7, 2009).
“We know GDL reduces deaths and injuries among younger teens, so extending requirements to older teens could have a similar effect,” says Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research. “New Jersey's experience with GDL suggests that teens would support applying the learner's permit and nighttime driving and passenger restrictions to older teens plus an older licensing age.”
Often described as a model for young driver licensing laws, New Jersey has an intermediate licensing age of 17, the oldest in the nation. The state also applies full GDL restrictions to novice drivers ages 18, 19 and 20. Another unique feature is a requirement that drivers in the system display red reflective decals on their front and rear license plates. The idea is to help police easily identify their license status in order to enforce driving and passenger restrictions.
New Jersey's approach has been associated with significant reductions in the crash rates for 17 and 18 year-olds and has virtually eliminated crashes among 16 year-olds, without adversely affecting crash rates for 19 year-olds (see "New Jersey leads way with strong teen licensing laws," March 31, 2010).
New Jersey teens support licensing age but not decals
To find out how New Jersey teens view graduated licensing, IIHS conducted phone and online surveys of 1,013 teenagers ages 17-19 during December 2012 and January 2013. Forty-four percent of the survey respondents had a full driver's license, 40 percent had a probationary license, 9 percent had a learner's permit and 7 percent hadn't begun the process yet.
Overall, 84 percent of teens surveyed approved of the state's licensing age of 17 and only 14 percent disapproved. Of the latter group, 59 percent said they thought the licensing age should be 16 years old. When it comes to older novices, 77 percent of teens surveyed said they approve of the state's requirement that all beginners younger than 21 must go through GDL.
Vital components of any GDL system include strong restrictions on nighttime driving and driving with passengers. There has been some speculation that older teens might not comply as often as younger teens. New Jersey's nighttime driving restriction for probationary license holders is from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., and drivers in this stage are limited to one passenger who isn't a family member.
To see if compliance varies by age, researchers asked teenagers with probationary licenses how often they had driven past 11 p.m. during the past month and if they had driven with more than one passenger during the same period. Teenagers ages 18-19 were only slightly more likely to say they had driven later than 11 p.m. compared with 17 year-olds (34 percent vs. 29 percent) but twice as likely to have done so multiple times. There was no difference between the two age groups when asked if they had driven with more than one passenger in their vehicle.
The decal requirement implemented in 2010 remains unpopular. Three-quarters of teens surveyed said they were against it, and 6 in 10 strongly disapproved. Just 42 percent of probationary license holders said they always used decals and 11 percent said they sometimes used them. A 2011 IIHS survey found that 90 percent of teens with probationary licenses disapproved of the decals (see "N.J. teen decals boost citations, not compliance," Dec. 15, 2011).
“New Jersey's experience with GDL and how teens there perceive the state's unique licensing requirements could help guide policies in states that may be considering GDL for older beginners,” says Allan Williams, a former chief scientist for IIHS and lead author of the study.