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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 3 | March 31, 2010 Subscribe

New Jersey leads way with strong teen licensing laws

Teenagers in New Jersey have to wait until they're 17 to get their licenses, and then they have to adhere to tough restrictions designed to help improve their driving while minimizing risks. These policies are paying off. A new AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study reveals significant reductions in the crash rates of 17 and 18 year-olds plus elimination of most crashes of 16 year-olds.

Most states license at 16, 16½, or somewhere in between, and a few license even younger. Only New Jersey has had a law in place for decades that puts off licensure until 17, which is more in line with policies in countries other than the United States.

New Jersey's graduated licensing program, begun in 2001, puts this state among 34 with laws that meet or exceed most Institute benchmarks for an optimal program except that it notably lacks a nighttime driving provision that begins at 9 or 10 p.m. instead of later. States with such programs experience both lower fatal crash rates among teen drivers and lower rates of insurance claims, compared with states with weaker laws.

Only New Jersey applies all of its graduated licensing provisions to beginners younger than 21. Teens who enter the licensing systems in nearly every other state before they're 18 graduate from the restrictions once they turn 18, and the laws in most states don't apply at all to older beginners.

Beginners in New Jersey spend at least 6 months in the learner's stage and must be 17 to get provisional licenses. Nighttime and passenger restrictions apply for a year, effectively making 18 the minimum age for an unrestricted license. For people 17-20, both the learner and provisional stages have nighttime driving restrictions and passenger limits. Cellphones and other electronic devices are banned for beginners of all ages, and all occupants must use safety belts.

"New Jersey shows that licensing later and and then restricting driving by beginners produces safer drivers who are less prone to crashing," says Allan Williams, former Institute chief scientist and lead author of the AAA report. "Teenagers accrue an extra year of maturity before getting behind the wheel and accumulate on-the-road experience in more favorable conditions. It's the right combination."

Williams' study is first to take a comprehensive look at the combined effects of delayed licensure and a graduated system that applies to all beginners. His research team compared crash rates among various age groups before and after graduated licensing began in 2001. Data are from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System and New Jersey records of police-reported crashes.

Crash rates among drivers 17 years old, the main beneficiaries of graduated licensing, fell 16 percent in New Jersey after the law took effect, relative to crashes of drivers 25-59 years old. Fatal crashes per 100,000 population declined 25 percent, and injury crashes per 1,000 population fell 14 percent. Nighttime crashes of 17 year-olds tumbled 44 percent, compared with drivers 25-59, after the 2001 law banned beginners from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. Before this law, New Jersey ranked 45th among 51 jurisdictions in terms of 17 year-olds' fatal crash rates. After the law, the ranking improved to 21st. Williams points out that 15 of the 20 states ranking ahead of New Jersey subject some or all of their 17 year-olds to graduated licensing.

While other states except Maryland don't touch 18 year-olds with driving restrictions, New Jersey's law benefits drivers this age. The overall crash rate of 18 year-olds fell 10 percent after the 2001 law. Injury crashes also fell 10 percent, while crashes among 16-year-old drivers were largely eliminated.

A concern about postponing licensure until 17 has been that this just delays the risk associated with beginners, offsetting any safety benefits of later licensing by elevating 17 year-olds' crash rates, but this hasn't been the case in New Jersey.

Now the states legislators are strengthening restrictions on nighttime driving and passengers. Beginning May 1, the nighttime restriction will start at 11 p.m. instead of midnight, and beginners won't be allowed to drive with passengers other than their dependents. Another new restriction involves reflective decals on the license plates, both front and rear, of vehicles driven by people who are younger than 21. The idea is to help police enforce graduated licensing restrictions by identifying learners and provisional licensees.

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