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Status Report, Vol. 39, No. 4 | March 27, 2004 Subscribe

N.C. families heed driving restrictions, despite minimal enforcement

Teenagers and their parents in North Carolina indicate they know about the state's graduated licensing system. For the most part, they report adhering to the restrictions imposed on beginning drivers. These are the results of a new survey of 900 teenagers and parents conducted for the Institute by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

The state's graduated licensing system, introduced in 1997, includes a restriction on nighttime driving that begins at 9 p.m., earlier than in most states (see "North Carolina adopts strong new graduated licensing law," May 10, 1997). In 2002 North Carolina legislators added a passenger restriction. When teenagers first get their licenses, they cannot drive with more than one passenger younger than 21 unless the passengers are related to the driver.

More than 90 percent of both parents and teens knew about the night driving restriction. Almost all of those who knew about it (98 percent of parents and 96 percent of teenagers) correctly reported that it begins at 9 p.m. However, 10 percent of the teens said they had driven during the hours of restriction without their parents' knowledge. Fifteen percent said they had violated the restriction with parental approval. More than 80 percent of parents and teenagers said they knew about the passenger restriction, and only 4 percent of parents reported allowing their children to drive with more than one teenage passenger in the car. But the teens themselves gave a somewhat contradictory response. Nineteen percent of them said their parents had allowed them to drive with more than one teenage passenger. Twenty percent of the teenagers said they had violated the passenger restriction without their parents' knowledge.

"Parents have a much easier time enforcing the night driving restriction compared with the restriction on passengers," says Arthur Goodwin, lead author of the survey report. "It's harder to monitor whether a teenager is out driving with passengers in the car than it is to notice whether the car is gone after 9 p.m."

Perceptions varied concerning the amount of police enforcement of graduated licensing restrictions. The majority of parents and more than one in four teenagers had no knowledge or beliefs about whether enforcement was being conducted. Among teens who had opinions, about 60 percent thought the night driving restriction was commonly enforced. Forty percent thought the passenger restriction was being enforced.

Teenagers who had violated these restrictions expressed little concern about being detected. But the majority said they do drive more carefully to avoid the attention of police.

To get a sense of what law enforcement officers think about the state's licensing restrictions, the researchers conducted informal interviews with 20 officers in 5 communities across North Carolina. Most of them expressed strong support for the graduated licensing system. At the same time, the officers indicated that enforcing this law isn't a priority. None of the jurisdictions had an enforcement program specifically aimed at drivers who are subject to restrictions under graduated licensing.

"Even though this study suggests that enforcement is perceived to be unlikely, graduated licensing has been effective in North Carolina," says Institute chief scientist Allan Williams. "Crashes among teenage drivers have been reduced, and increased enforcement could produce further reductions."

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