Across the country it was legal until recently for five or six teenagers to pile into a car and go joyriding at 2 a.m. It wasn't the best time or circumstance for a beginner to be driving, but it was perfectly legal. Not anymore. In a few short years, 35 states have adopted one or more elements of graduated licensing, a system that phases in young beginners to full driving privileges over time — one or two years — instead of letting 16 and 17 year-olds drive anywhere, anytime, with whomever they choose (see "Teen deaths reduced in Florida," Feb. 6, 1999).
All graduated licensing laws aren't the same, though. The provisions vary a lot, and some of the new laws are going to prove much more effective than others. To gauge which ones are likely to be the most effective and why, Status Report tapped the thoughts of Institute senior vice president Allan Williams, who for years has been in the forefront of research on teenage drivers. He's also an author of many research reports on graduated licensing, including "A Blueprint for North America," which spells out the structure and features of a model graduated system.
It turns out that some aspects of what Williams calls the current "graduated licensing bandwagon" surprise even him.
Allan Williams: There are some surprises, and the first is how fast the bandwagon is taking off. Research has shown for years that programs like this would reduce the teen driving problem, but for so long there just wasn't much political will to curtail teenage driving privileges. Now the will has not only developed but spread rapidly from state to state. Lots of states are changing their licensing systems, adopting new laws, and then going back and trying to strengthen even the recent laws to add new protections for teenage drivers.
This has all happened since Florida got the first graduated licensing law in 1996. It was a good enough law, but we've seen features added to the laws enacted since then. Michigan was first to require parents to certify that kids had driven at least 50 supervised hours during the learner's stage, and now this is a popular requirement. California was first to adopt meaningful passenger restrictions, and now other states are following.
Status Report: What provisions are the most important?
AW: The best laws build on the idea of licensing as an apprentice system to teach young beginners the complex task of driving. The apprenticeship includes three stages of licensing — a supervised learner's period followed by an intermediate license that permits some unsupervised driving, and then full privileges. During the first two stages, which should last at least six months each, it's important to restrict late-night driving and driving any time of day with passengers, especially other teenagers, unless an adult is in the car.
SR: All states with graduated licensing don't include these provisions?
AW: Very few include them all. Some states have laws that really don't even qualify as graduated systems because they don't have intermediate licensing stages. There's a learner's period with supervised driving only, but then teenagers go straight to full licensure, and the trouble with this is we know the crashes are occurring when teenagers first get licensed and drive unsupervised. If you don't have restrictions on high-risk unsupervised driving during this initial period, you don't really have graduated licensing at all.
SR: Is the real issue the age at which teens get their licenses? Or is it mainly a matter of getting enough experience?
AW: It's both. Youth and inexperience contribute about equally. Graduated licensing addresses the experience issue directly with a set period — hopefully two years — of lower risk behind-the-wheel experience. Then by extending the licensing process, graduated systems also ensure that teenagers are 17 or 18 years old instead of the usual 16 when they get full privileges. And believe it or not, 17 and 18 year-olds don't exhibit as much immature behavior as 16 year-olds when they drive.
This is one reason it's important not to start the graduated program too soon — not before age 16 — because you don't want kids out of the system before they're 18. Still, most states do allow teenagers to start the learner's stage before they're 16, in some states before age 15, which is way too young.
SR: So why not just delay the licensing age to 17 or 18?
AW: There's something to be said for this, based on the data. It's obvious that the biggest crash risk is for 16 year-olds. Plus parents favor a licensing age older than 16. But we have to be realistic and strike a balance between allowing teens reasonable mobility and making sure they're protected while they learn to drive, before they're let loose on their own. Graduated licensing strikes a fair balance. Besides, if you delay licensing teenagers until they're 18, you'd just be putting inexperienced 18 year-olds out on the road, and inexperience is a risk factor no matter what age.
SR: Wouldn't it be even fairer to let the responsible teens go ahead with full-privilege licenses earlier, and focus restrictions on the bad drivers?
AW: Turn this question around and you get closer to the truth. Is it fair to allow very young and inexperienced people out on the roads where there are known substantial dangers they aren't prepared to handle? I'd argue no. To me it's fair to recognize that all kids are inexperienced drivers who need a slow phase-in.
In many cases, there aren't any violations or other indications of problems on teenagers' driving records before they get into serious crashes. So it wouldn't do to focus only on the young drivers with bad records. The way to reduce the serious crashes is to make sure every single teenager gets plenty of driving experience in low-risk circumstances.
SR: Besides establishing the two stages of supervised learning for young beginners, what else should be included?
AW: A night driving restriction is pretty much the engine of graduated licensing. Night driving is more hazardous for everybody, and it really spikes the crash risk for young drivers. This is also when a lot of high-risk recreational driving takes place and when alcohol is more likely to be involved, so for a lot of reasons it just makes sense to keep inexperienced and unsupervised drivers off the roads late at night.
A number of states already restrict late-night driving, but in most cases the restrictions don't start until midnight or later. This isn't good because teenagers' nighttime crashes typically occur before midnight. Ten o'clock to midnight Friday and Saturday nights are big problem times for the serious crashes, so restrictions should start by 9 or 10 p.m. Any later and there should be an adult in the car if a beginner is behind the wheel. The exception would be if it's essential driving like to or from work.
SR: What else is important?
AW: Any time of day, it's high-risk for teens to get in cars with their peers and no adult present. The "why" of this is obvious — there's a lot going on, a whole social system, in that car full of teenagers, so the driver gets distracted. We're talking about an inexperienced driver to begin with, and now there are major distractions. It's a recipe for trouble.
In the worst cases, the teen passengers induce the driver to take risks like speeding. But even without this, there's the general distraction of social interaction. The bottom line is that young beginners need to pay 100 percent attention to the driving task instead of driving and socializing at the same time.
SR: Is it a recent idea to restrict teenage passengers in cars driven by beginners? How many states do this?
AW: This is something I didn't think we'd see in the United States. I thought we were too accustomed to letting kids go places with their friends. It's so much a part of the teenage scene. But when a passenger restriction was introduced in California, it sailed through. There wasn't much opposition. And when a bellwether state like this introduces something new, other states follow. Now nine states restrict passengers.
SR: But isn't this taking a risk of putting lots more teen drivers out on the road, each in a separate car?
AW: It's not the case that every teenager will travel on his or her own. But even if a lot of them do, the risk is so huge when several teens get in a single car that any alternative, even driving one by one, is an improvement.
SR: What do parents have to say about these restrictions?
AW: Basically they love the night driving restrictions, and most parents favor the passenger restrictions too. Parents often anticipate inconvenience having to chauffeur their kids around longer. But even this hasn't turned out to be much of a factor. In Florida, we went back and quizzed parents about the inconvenience after their kids got licenses, and they said it wasn't a big deal at all.
SR: Do you have any parting comments?
AW: Yes, they've got to do with graduated licensing as a tradeoff between safety and mobility, not a way to keep kids from doing what they want to do. For so long, we've made it so easy to get a license without having to do much to prove you can handle it. The upshot is we've been putting inexperienced young people on the road who haven't mastered what really is a complex skill, with potentially lethal consequences. This makes no sense. It makes more sense to phase people in. I just think we've had so much easy mobility for so long that it's worth it to back off from this some to get the safety gains we're going to get from graduated licensing.