"You can hear a pin drop," says a state legislator in Maryland, when you tell a class full of 15 year-olds that you'd vote to raise the driving age. Similar silence greets like-minded policymakers in other states.
"It's a tough sell, all right," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research, "but it's an important enough issue to challenge the silence and at least consider changing the age at which we allow teenagers to get their licenses to drive. After all, graduated licensing has been successful ever since states began to adopt these programs more than a decade ago, and raising the licensing age is a logical next step to reduce driving by the riskiest motorists on the road, the youngest ones."
The graduated systems in most U.S. states include permit periods and then limit when and with whom young beginners may drive (see "Good news about teen drivers: Crashes continue to fall," June 15, 2007). The result has been to lower crash rates in state after state. However, most U.S. states still allow driving at age 16, 16 1/2, or somewhere in between.
A new report by the Institute's former chief scientist, Allan Williams, summarizes variations in countries' licensing policies, focusing on the costs in terms of lives of allowing licensure sooner rather than later. The main message is that licensing at later ages would substantially reduce crashes involving teen drivers.
The same conclusion has been reached in other countries. Teenagers in Great Britain and most Australian states can't get licenses until they turn 17, for example, and in most EU countries it's 18.
New Jersey example
Among U.S. states, only New Jersey holds off licensure until age 17, and a recent analysis of the crash experience of young drivers indicates the benefits. A rate of 4.4 16-year-old drivers per 100,000 population were in fatal crashes during the study years, compared with 20.7 per 100,000 in neighboring Connecticut, where 16 year-olds could get licenses.
The lower death rate in New Jersey was offset by a slightly higher rate at age 17 (32.3 versus 31.1 per 100,000), but the combined rate for 16 and 17 year-olds still was much lower than in Connecticut. These comparisons don't reflect the benefits of graduated licensing in either state because the study years, 1992-96, were before graduated systems began to be adopted in New Jersey (2001) or Connecticut (1997).
Two previous Institute studies also compared the effects of the licensing policies in New Jersey versus Connecticut. During 1975-80, there were 4 crash deaths of 16-year-old drivers per 100,000 in New Jersey compared with 26 per 100,000 in Connecticut (see "Higher licensing age in New Jersey lowers fatalities for 16 year-olds," Jan. 10, 1984). The authors estimated that Connecticut could achieve a 66 percent reduction in fatal crashes among 16- and 17-year-old drivers by changing the licensing age to 17. Similar differences in the 2 states' rates of all kinds of crashes, not just fatal ones, were reported a decade later (see "Early licensure laws increase teenagers' risk behind the wheel," Sept. 10, 1994).
In 2001 New Jersey added strong graduated licensing provisions. In the years right after the addition of these, the fatal crash rate of 17-year-old drivers decreased 33 percent from the years before graduated licensing took effect. The corresponding decline for 18 year-olds was 20 percent.
These benefits might reflect the strength of New Jersey's graduated system. All of the provisions apply to all beginning drivers younger than 21, not just younger teenagers as in most other states.
Australian state thwarted earlier licenses
When an attempt got under way in the 1980s to lower the licensing age in Victoria, Australia, from 18 years old to 17 or 16, researchers studied the potential effects and estimated that changing to 17 would result in 650 to 700 more injury crashes per year and 30 to 50 more crashes involving deaths. Lowering the licensing age to 16 would worsen this jurisdiction's annual toll even more.
Subsequent study indicated that restricting the driving privileges of Victoria's newly licensed 17 year-olds under a graduated system wouldn't make up for the added risk associated with lowering the licensing age.
"The two policies, licensing later rather than sooner and restricting beginners' driving under graduated licensing, complement each other," Williams points out. Victoria retains its licensing age of 18.
Driver age versus experience
A basic question is whether the risk associated with beginning drivers stems from their youth and immaturity or from their inexperience behind the wheel. If it's mainly immaturity, then it would pay to put off licensure until teenagers get a little older. But if the problem is mostly inexperience, then delaying licensure would simply put off the toll of beginners' crashes.
It's hard to separate these two factors. Death rates among 16 year-olds are much lower in New Jersey than in Connecticut. This isn't surprising, and it indicates the wisdom of licensing later rather than sooner. However, death rates are slightly higher among 17-year-old drivers in New Jersey, likely because they have less experience behind the wheel than drivers the same age in Connecticut.
Canadian researchers tried to untangle the influence of age and experience on crashes involving beginners by dividing drivers 16, 17, and 18 years old according to whether they had been driving less than a year or more than a year. The main finding, reported in 1992, is that 16 year-olds, especially girls this age, had higher rates of injury crashes than older teenagers who also were new to the road.
A review of 11 studies published since 1990 also separates the relative contributions of driver age and inexperience to beginners' crashes. The upshot of this Institute study is that new drivers who are 16 years old have higher crash rates than older teenagers who also are new drivers.
"Apart from the effects of age or experience, delaying driver licensure reduces crash rates by reducing the amount young people drive," McCartt says.
Safety isn't the only consideration
Many parents say they favor licensing at ages older than 16. Up to half of the parents surveyed in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Rhode Island said they favor a licensing age of 17 or older (see "Many teens still get permits as soon as possible," June 15, 2007). Similar findings have resulted from previous Institute surveys (see "Strong graduated licensing law attracts widespread support," June 30, 2001). Yet these parental opinions haven't translated into any substantial pressure on state governments to enact later licensing ages.
"Parents may know that putting off licensure is good from a safety standpoint, but at the same time they're impatient to get out of the business of chauffeuring their kids from one activity to another. They often believe their own children will be safe drivers, and they may be disinclined to disappoint their kids, many of whom want to get their licenses as soon as possible. For these and whatever other reasons, parents haven't made a big push to change the licensing laws," McCartt says.
Legislation was introduced during the most recent sessions of lawmakers in Delaware, Florida, and Georgia to adopt 17 as the minimum age to get a driver's license. One bill in Massachusetts also proposed 17, while another one argued for 18. Yet none of these measures, nor one that would have raised the licensing age in Illinois to 18, met with any success.