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Status Report, Vol. 47, No. 4 | May 31, 2012Subscribe

How to make young driver laws even better

If every state adopted all five components of the toughest young driver licensing laws in the nation, more than 500 lives could be saved and more than 9,500 collisions could be prevented each year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) estimate. Some states could halve or more than halve their rate of fatal crashes among 15-17 year-olds if they adopted the strongest graduated driver licensing (GDL) provisions.

Institute researchers collaborated with HLDI analysts to develop an online calculator to show individual states the safety gains they could achieve by adopting some or all of the most beneficial GDL provisions in effect today. The five key GDL components are permit age, practice driving hours, license age, and night driving and passenger restrictions.

The current best practices are a minimum intermediate license age of 17 (New Jersey), a minimum permit age of 16 (Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island), at least 65 supervised practice hours (Pennsylvania) and, during the intermediate stage, a night driving restriction starting at 8 p.m. (Idaho and in South Carolina during daylight saving time) and a ban on all teen passengers (15 states and D.C.).

Fatal crashes per 100,000 people
Passenger vehicle drivers by age, 1996-2010

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Institute and HLDI research has shown that states with the strongest laws enjoy the biggest reductions in fatal crashes and collisions reported to insurers among teen drivers, compared with states with weak laws (see "Status Report special issue: teenage drivers," May 7, 2009 and "Licensing teenagers later reduces their crashes," Sept. 9, 2008).

"Even the best states can do better," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "There's room for improvement across the board, and states could see immediate reductions in fatal crashes and collision claims as soon as the beefed-up provisions are in force."

Graduated licensing enables new teen drivers to gradually build up driving experience as they mature and develop on-the-road skills. The system has three stages: a supervised learner's period, an intermediate license (after passing a road test) that limits driving in high-risk situations except under supervision, and a license with full privileges. Teens with learner permits should get lots of supervised driving practice, and once they have intermediate licenses they should be subject to limits on night driving and teen passengers. The longer the restrictions last the better.

In the mid-1990s, states began adopting elements of graduated licensing (see "Race on among states: More states require teens to graduate to unrestricted licenses," Aug. 10, 1996). By December 2000, all but nine states had GDL laws. Since there is no nationwide GDL system, the laws vary.

To recognize states with the best laws, the Institute began rating them in 2000 from good to poor. Initially, only six states and the District of Columbia earned good ratings, and nine were poor (see "Graduated licensing laws," Dec. 20, 2000). By May of 2011, 36 states and D.C. rated good, seven rated fair and seven were marginal. No states earned poor ratings. In recent years, legislators have been slow to toughen graduated licensing laws, particularly when it comes to raising the age for a permit or license. During the 2010-12 legislative sessions, for example, nine states strengthened elements of their young driver laws, compared with 20 states during 2007-09 sessions.

The ratings initially encouraged states to adopt three-phase graduated licensing systems. The ratings, however, didn't show legislators how any state — even ones with already-strong laws — could boost the benefits of graduated licensing by targeting specific components, such as night restrictions, for improvement. The Institute now knows more about what works and what doesn't when it comes to keeping young drivers safe. Based on more than a decade of data, researchers are able to estimate the effects of changing individual provisions of GDL.

As a result, the Institute has decided to stop grading state GDL laws and switch to a calculator system designed to outline opportunities for improvement in every state. In addition to the best-practice scenario, the calculator shows the estimated fatal crash and collision claims reductions that a given state can achieve with any combination of specific law changes.

"States don't have to adopt the toughest laws in the nation to realize safety gains. Strengthening one or two components pays off. To maximize all of the benefits of graduated licensing, however, we would encourage lawmakers to consider the strongest provisions," McCartt says.

Stronger laws yield benefits

Iowa and South Dakota are examples of states that could sharply lower fatal crash and collision claim rates among teen drivers. Both states allow 14 year-olds to obtain learner permits. Iowa makes drivers wait until they're 16 to get a license, but South Dakota allows teens to get a license three months after their 14th birthday. The state has the youngest license age in the nation.

"That's too risky," McCartt says. "The younger teens are when they get their licenses, the higher their crash rate."

If South Dakota raised its license age to 17, the benefit would be an estimated 32 percent reduction in fatal crash rates among 15-17-year-old drivers and a 13 percent reduction in collision claims among 16-17-year-old drivers. Raising the license age to 15½ could reduce fatal crashes by an estimated 16 percent and collision claims by 6 percent.

A crucial provision of any graduated licensing system is a night driving restriction. South Dakota's starts at 10 p.m., but Iowa's doesn't begin until 12:30 a.m. Moving Iowa's restriction to 8 p.m. would reduce teens' fatal crashes 10 percent.

Neither state bars beginners from transporting other teens, a practice that increases crash risk. If both states adopted such a policy, they each could realize a 21 percent drop in fatal crashes among 15-17-year-old drivers and a 5 percent decline in collision claim rates among 16-17-year-old drivers. A one-teen-passenger limit would reduce teens' fatal crash rates 7 percent in either state.

If Iowa adopted the strongest provisions across the board, the state could see a 55 percent reduction in teens' fatal crash rates. South Dakota's estimated safety gains are even bigger — a 63 percent reduction in fatal crashes and a 37 percent drop in collision claims.

Percent reduction in teenagers' crash rates
by graduated licensing component

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Even best states can improve

Connecticut comes closest to the current best-practices system. The state makes teens wait until age 16 for a permit and restricts all teen passengers during the intermediate license stage. If Connecticut also adopted the best provisions for practice hours, license age and night driving, it could realize a 17 percent reduction in fatal crashes and a 13 percent reduction in collision claims among teen drivers.

New York is another state with a strong GDL program. It has a permit age of 16, a license age of 16½, a night driving restriction beginning at 9 p.m., a one-teen-passenger limit and a 50-hour supervised-practice-driving requirement. Adopting the toughest provisions would reduce fatal crashes among 15-17-year-old drivers by 24 percent and collision claims among 16-17-year-old drivers by 7 percent.

"We encourage states to sharpen the core elements of their teen driver laws, particularly restrictions on night driving and young passengers," McCartt says. "Raising the licensing age would help in many states, but we realize that this isn't always a politically popular option."

About the calculator

The calculator grew out of the Institute's and HLDI's 2009 evaluation of the effects of various provisions of teen licensing laws on fatal crashes and collision claims for teen drivers. In this analysis, fatal crashes are the rate of 15-17-year-old passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes per 100,000 teens. Collision claims are the frequency of collision claims per 100 insured vehicle years for 16-17-year-old drivers (an insured vehicle year is one vehicle insured for one year, two insured for six months each, etc.). Collision coverage insures against damage to the policyholder's vehicle. The findings indicate strong benefits of restricting when teens are allowed to drive and how many young passengers may ride along. Raising the license and permit age also reduces teens' fatal crashes. The calculator estimates reflect the relative importance of each provision and reductions states have seen as a result of GDL. Longer learner permit holding periods, a criterion under the prior rating system, don't show independent benefits in the analysis.

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