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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 7 | August 3, 2010 Subscribe

Parents favor strict rules for teen drivers and higher licensing age

Parents want strict limits on teen drivers, but many states fall short when it comes to the most effective graduated licensing systems for young beginners. In a new national survey, parents of 15-18 year-olds told the Institute they favor licensing policies as strong as or stronger than in any U.S. jurisdiction. In particular, parents support older licensing and permit ages for beginners and tough restrictions on nighttime driving and passengers. As Congress considers a bill to create a national graduated driver licensing system, the Institute's findings suggest the time is right to strengthen laws aimed at lowering the risks teens face during their early years on the road.

"This is the first comprehensive look at how parents of teenagers nationwide view current licensing policies," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and an author of the study, which reflects the views of more than 1,200 parents. "We were surprised at how tough moms and dads said they want the laws to be, and we think parents are ready for upgrades."

This readiness could help ease passage of the Standup Act, or Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, which would establish a minimum guideline for states' graduated licensing systems. The bill, introduced in April 2009, would provide grants to states that enact the basic tenets. States that don't comply would lose some federal highway funding. Among the criteria are a learner age of 16 plus night, passenger, cellphone, and texting restrictions that last until age 18.

"Lawmakers should take this survey into account as they look to strengthen graduated licensing systems at the state level and as they weigh a bill to create a federal model," advises Allan Williams, the Institute's former chief scientist and the study's lead author. "Findings suggest many parents would accept licensing rules that go beyond the proposed Standup Act's provisions."

Why graduated licensing matters

Teens are overinvolved in crashes because they lack both the judgment that comes with maturity and the skill that comes with experience. The crash rate per mile driven among 16-19 year-olds is 4 times as high as for older drivers. Graduated licensing is designed to delay full licensure while allowing beginners to obtain initial experience under lower-risk conditions.

The best systems set 16 as the minimum age to get a learner's permit, and during this period parents certify at least 30-50 hours of supervised driving. Intermediate licensure begins at 16½ or older and lasts until at least 18 years old and includes both a night driving restriction starting at 9 or 10 p.m. and a rule prohibiting teen passengers, or allowing no more than 1 when teenagers drive unsupervised.

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have 3-stage systems. Some states have enacted virtually all the elements of graduated licensing, while others have enacted only parts, so the strength of the laws varies widely. And although graduated systems have lowered young drivers' crash rates in state after state, serious collisions still occur.

"We know a lot more today about what makes graduated licensing effective than we did when states first began adopting these systems in the mid-1990s," Williams points out. "States have come a long way, too, but the laws in some haven't kept pace with the latest research."

For instance, there's clear evidence now that barring beginners from driving with any teen passengers and restricting driving after 9 or 10 p.m. are more effective than weaker restrictions or none at all. An Institute study and another by the affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute have found that delaying licensure reduces fatal crashes among 15-17-year-old drivers and insurance collision claims among 16 year-olds with licenses (see "Licensing teenagers later reduces their crashes," Sept. 9, 2008, and Status Report special issue: teenage drivers, May 7, 2009).

"Given these findings, it's encouraging that most parents say they would support later licensing," McCartt adds. "It's a proven way to reduce teenagers' crashes."

Licensing age and permits

Parents in the survey generally prefer higher licensing ages than are the norm in U.S. states. More than half think the minimum age for unsupervised driving should be 17 or older. Only New Jersey has a licensing age as old as 17, and it's an effective policy (see "New Jersey leads way with strong teen licensing laws," March 31, 2010). Two-thirds of parents say learners should start at 16 or older. Eight states and D.C. delay the learning process to this age, but others start earlier.

For all 3 licensing stages, parents of teens who have neither a license nor a permit are more in favor of higher licensing and permit ages, compared with parents of children who have started or finished the licensing process. Eighty percent of parents of no permit/no license teens prefer a learner age of 16 or older versus 59 percent of other parents. Sixty-nine percent versus 45 percent favor a restricted licensing age of 17 or older, and 64 versus 48 percent chose 18 or older for a full license.

Graduated licensing usually includes a minimum learner's permit period, and more than half of parents surveyed think teens should stay in this stage for at least a year (7 states require this). Increasing the permit period can delay intermediate licensure and give teens more supervised practice opportunities. Results of Institute analyses show the benefits of delaying minimum ages for permits and intermediate licenses but no additional benefit for extending the permit period.

Almost all parents surveyed back supervised driving requirements. Sixty percent want more than 50 hours, and 40 percent say 100 or more. Only Kentucky and Maryland require more than 50 hours of practice driving. Institute research findings are mixed regarding the amount of supervised practice behind the wheel that states should require (see Status Report special issue: teenage drivers, May 7, 2009).

Night and passenger restrictions

Ninety percent of parents approve of a night driving restriction, and more than three-quarters of these respondents say they would support one that starts at 10 p.m. or earlier. Only 11 states currently have restrictions starting this early.

Eighty-nine percent of parents favor passenger restrictions. When these parents were asked how many teens unrelated to a teen driver should be allowed, 44 percent said 1, 38 percent said none, and only 18 percent said 2 or more. Support is strong (71 percent) for exempting siblings from such limits. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have passenger restrictions allowing either no teen passengers or no more than 1 when beginners drive unsupervised. Only South Carolina allows up to 2 passengers younger than 21, and 8 states have no passenger restrictions.

As with licensing and permit ages, researchers note some differences between parents whose teens are either going through the graduated licensing system or who have completed it and parents whose kids haven't started driving. Parents of beginners with restricted licenses are the least likely among all surveyed to want a night restriction starting at 9 p.m. or earlier. They're also the least likely to want night or passenger restrictions that last until age 18 and most likely to want siblings exempted from the passenger restriction.

"When it comes to their own children, some parents don't want to apply the restrictions that they'd support for teenagers in general," McCartt says. "It's also notable that although 70 percent of parents say they favor parent orientation courses, fewer than half show interest in actually participating in such a course before their teenagers get their learner's permits."

Bans on texting and cellphone use win nearly universal support among parents, but Institute research indicates that teens often ignore cellphone restrictions (see "Teenage drivers continue to use cellphones despite a North Carolina ban," June 9, 2008). About two-thirds of parents approve of requiring drivers with restricted licenses to use license plate identifiers to signal their status. New Jersey recently adopted this approach, but it's unknown so far what impact it will have on enforcement of graduated licensing restrictions (see "New Jersey leads way with strong teen licensing laws," March 31, 2010).

Opinion is divided on whether driving tests should be more challenging. The majority of parents want tougher tests, including a test to graduate to a full license. But 37 percent prefer the tests to remain the same.

Regional differences

Parents in northeastern states are more likely to favor older learner's permit and restricted driving ages than parents in other regions. For example, 88 percent of northeastern parents say they prefer a learner's permit age of 16 or older, compared with just 51 percent in midwestern states. Parents in southern states are most likely to favor more than 50 hours of practice driving. Meanwhile, parents in western states are least likely to favor tougher driving tests and most likely to approve of a ban on teen passengers. Midwestern parents of teens are least likely to favor enhanced penalties for violating night and passenger restrictions.

"Many parents don't know the laws in their own states," McCartt says. Only 33 percent of parents surveyed whose teens were currently in the graduated licensing system said they were very familiar with the licensing laws in their states.

The study reflects the opinions of 1,226 parents drawn from a nationally representative panel of U.S. households, including cellphone-only households and those without internet access. Participants completed an online survey between Feb. 19 and March 1, 2010, and those without web-connected computers were outfitted so they could participate.

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