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IIHS News | September 9, 2008Subscribe

Put off driver licensure to save lives

ARLINGTON, Va. — Most U.S. states allow driving at age 16, 16½, or somewhere in between. A new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report focuses on the costs in terms of lives of allowing licensure sooner rather than later. The message is that licensing at later ages would substantially reduce crashes involving teen drivers. The same conclusion has been reached in other countries. Teens in Great Britain and most Australian states can't get their licenses until they turn 17, for example. In most EU countries it's 18. The Institute's new report is being released at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

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.

"This is a tough sell," 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. The result has been to lower the crash rates in state after state.

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. 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 these states' rates of all kinds of crashes, not just fatal ones, were reported a decade later.

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.

Allan Williams, former Institute chief scientist and author of the new report on the driving age, says "the two policies, licensing later rather than sooner and restricting beginners' driving under graduated licensing, complement each other." 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 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, 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.

When teenagers get their licenses to drive

United States*  
South Dakota 14¼
Idaho 15
Montana 15
Mississippi 15½
New Mexico 15½
South Carolina 15½
Indiana 16112
Maryland 16¼
Virginia 16¼
Connecticut 16⅓
Delaware 16½
District of Columbia 16½
Kentucky 16½
Massachusetts 16½
New York 16½
Pennsylvania 16½
Rhode Island  16½
New Jersey 17
Other U.S. states 16

New Zealand 15
Alberta, NW Territories, Saskatchewan, Yukon 16
Nanavut 16112
Manitoba, Nova Scotia 16¼
New Brunswick 16⅓
Labrador, Newfoundland, Ontario, Quebec 16⅔
Prince Edward Island 16¾
British Columbia 17
Australia 17
except Northern Territory 16½
except Victoria 18
United Kingdom 17
Most EU countries 18
Brazil 18
China 18
Japan 18
Russia 18
South Africa 18

*Ages at which U.S. states permit unsupervised driving, in most cases with restrictions on night driving and passengers but none on where beginners may drive.

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