Graduated licensing laws in state after state are reducing crash rates among beginning drivers. Yet compliance with some provisions of these laws has lagged. For example, 32 states and the District of Columbia limit passengers in vehicles driven by teenagers with provisional licenses, but the beginners often don't heed this aspect of the law.
After 12 months of supervised driving under a learner's permit in North Carolina, beginners are permitted to drive unsupervised from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Only one passenger younger than 21 is allowed in the beginner's vehicle at any time of day, but about a third of the teens surveyed in North Carolina last year said they had violated these restrictions (see "N.C. families heed driving restrictions, despite minimal enforcement," March 27, 2004).
Seeking to reduce such violations, the Institute joined with University of North Carolina researchers to conduct "Ticket Today = License Delay," a publicity and enforcement program during August-December 2004 in Guilford County. Police ran checkpoints near high schools specifically to look for violations of graduated licensing provisions. Officers also patrolled popular evening gathering spots including malls and movie theaters. Initial warnings and then citations were issued to beginners who violated nighttime driving, passenger, and other restrictions. Coverage in the local newspaper and on television plus other publicity accompanied the stepped-up enforcement.
The result was to raise awareness about the requirements of graduated licensing. However, other program results indicate how difficult it is to boost compliance.
Researchers observed more than 5,000 young drivers at schools and interviewed groups of beginning drivers and their parents before the program and near its conclusion. In response to the increased enforcement, 29 percent of teenagers said they believed police were enforcing the graduated licensing law very strictly. This represents a significant change from before the program, when teenagers who violated restrictions of the law expressed little concern about being detected.
Fewer teenage passengers in Guilford
Another promising outcome was increased compliance with passenger restrictions. The number of observed vehicles with more than 1 young passenger decreased 20 percent more in Guilford County than in 2 comparison counties about 100 miles away.
This improvement could have been because of the parents of beginning drivers. Self-reported violations of passenger restrictions with parental permission declined 24 percent in Guilford County even as such violations increased 26 percent in the comparison counties.
"We always knew that parents are the first-line enforcers of graduated licensing, and it appears that programs like 'Ticket Today = License Delay' can motivate parents to do a better job. This might be the most important finding," says Susan Ferguson, the Institute's senior vice president for research.
On the other hand, there wasn't much change in self-reported compliance with nighttime driving restrictions. Nor did belt use increase, even though this was targeted in publicity and enforcement. The driver use rate remained at 82-83 percent from before to after the program. This doesn't necessarily mean the effect was nil, because while belt use was holding steady in Guilford it was decreasing among young drivers in the comparison counties.
"Still this is a very modest program result," Ferguson points out. "It isn't surprising, though, because teenagers are such a hard group to influence."
What the law requires
North Carolina's graduated licensing law took effect in December 1997. The intermediate licensing stage (the second of three stages, after the learner's permit and before unrestricted licensure) begins after 12 months of supervised driving and no earlier than age 16. Intermediate licensees aren't permitted to drive without supervision after 9 p.m. except when going to or from work. No more than 1 passenger younger than 21, except family members, is allowed in a beginner's vehicle any time of day unless there's a supervisor. Everyone in vehicles driven by 16 and 17 year-olds must be properly restrained.
Beginners convicted of moving violations or of violating graduated licensing provisions are subject to an extension of the intermediate license before becoming eligible for a full license.
"On the books, this is one of the better graduated systems in the country," Ferguson concludes. "It's just that some of the provisions, including the passenger restrictions, are difficult to enforce unless police stop vehicles and check drivers' licenses. Besides, compliance with graduated licensing provisions already was relatively high in North Carolina, even before this program, and it's hard to reach that last 10 or 20 percent of noncompliers."