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Status Report, Vol. 36, No. 2 | February 17, 2001 Subscribe

Young drivers' crash rates decline sharply under graduated licensing

States that adopted graduated licensing during the 1990s have realized large crash reductions among the newest drivers. This is the finding of preliminary research conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in three states.

Crashes involving 16-year-old drivers in North Carolina dropped 26 percent. The decline in Michigan was 31 percent, while 16 year-olds in Kentucky experienced a 32 percent reduction in crashes.

These results follow earlier Institute findings of an 11 percent reduction in crashes among 16 year-olds during the first year of Florida's graduated licensing law (see "Teen deaths reduced in Florida," Feb. 6, 1999).

"The crash reductions we're seeing are impressive," says Institute chief scientist Allan Williams. He points out that state graduated licensing programs include a range of restrictions, and crash reductions depend on how comprehensive the restrictions are.

A model graduated licensing law should include three distinct stages — a supervised learner's period, an intermediate license that permits some unsupervised driving in circumstances when the risk is lower, and then full privileges. During the intermediate stage, late-night driving should be restricted. So should driving any time with passengers in the car.

Night crashes drop in North Carolina

A graduated licensing program with distinct learner and intermediate stages was adopted in 1997. During the intermediate stage, beginners cannot drive unsupervised from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The importance of this is clear from the results of the new research — crashes involving 16 year-olds declined 47 percent during the restricted nighttime hours compared with 22 percent during the day. Most parents and teens across the state approve of this and other restrictions.

Michigan's restriction begins later

This state's graduated licensing program, adopted in 1997, includes all three stages. To reach the second (intermediate) stage, a learner must hold a permit for at least 6 months and have parental certification that 50 hours of supervised driving have been completed (10 of the 50 hours at night). The intermediate stage includes a nighttime driving restriction but, unlike North Carolina's 9 p.m. start, Michigan's restriction begins at midnight. Research indicates that the majority of teenagers' nighttime crashes occur before midnight.

Approach in Kentucky is different

A teen must be 16 to get a learner's permit, which then must be held for at least 6 months. This effectively raises the minimum licensing age to 16½, but once beginners get past the learner's stage there's no intermediate stage nor any further restriction on young drivers once they're licensed.

Among drivers ages 16 to 16½, crashes dropped 83 percent compared with before graduated licensing was adopted. But among drivers ages 16½ to 17, there was a 3 percent increase in crashes. The researchers say "these results support a need for extending restrictions and requirements for teen drivers who have completed the permit stage in order to increase the learning experience, reduce risk exposure, improve driving skills, and increase motivation for safe driving."

Teen crash risk falls after 6 months

The findings of two studies bolster the argument for letting teens ease into driving with graduated licensing laws.

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