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The Case for and Strategies to Implement Graduated Licensing in the United States

Allan F. Williams* and Barry M. Sweedler**

* Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Virginia, USA

** National Transportation Safety Board, Washington, DC 20594, USA


Each year in the United States more than 8,000 persons die in traffic crashes in which the driver is between the ages of 15-20 years. Young drivers are over-representative in traffic crashes and deaths. Thus, they continue to be a major traffic safety concern. Drivers age 15-20 years comprised only 7.1 percent of licensed drivers, but accounted for 14.9 percent of all driver fatalities. Further, while young drivers do only 20 percent of their driving at night, over half the crash fatalities of adolescent drivers occur during night time hours. First-year drivers (primarily ages 16 and 17) have twice the average number of crashes and, on a miles-driven basis, four times the number of crashes involving more experienced drivers.

One of the concepts suggested to address this problem is the establishing of a graduated licensing system in conjunction with night time driving restrictions for young novice drivers.

This paper will discuss the key elements of a graduated licensing system, the research evidence that supports it and the proposals, strategies and plans to bring about the implementation of these programs in each of the 50 U.S. States.


The case for graduated licensing is clear and compelling. Graduated licensing systems are designed to introduce beginning drivers into the driving population in ways that minimize risks to themselves and others. Graduated licensing thus can be, and has been, applied to beginning drivers of any age, although in the United States it is expected that only beginners younger than age 18 will be addressed. Such drivers are at particularly high risk of crashing because the driving characteristics associated with beginners and those associated with youthful age combine in a lethal way. The driving behavior of youthful drivers involves judgment, decision making, and actions that reflect immaturity. As a group, young drivers are more aggressive than others; they are, for example, more likely to drive fast, follow too closely, and accelerate rapidly (Bergeron, 1991; Romanowicz and Gebers, 1990; Jonah, 1986). They do so despite the fact that, compared with more experienced drivers, they are less able to detect imminent hazards, more likely to perceive hazardous situations as less dangerous than they really are, and less adept at performing driving actions necessary to cope with hazardous situations once they arise (Matthews and Moran, 1986; Quimby and Watts, 1981; Groeger and Brown 1989; Brown and Groeger, 1988). As a result, young beginning drivers -- 16 and 17 year-olds -- have crash rates that greatly exceed those of older drivers, including older teenagers (Table 1). In 1990 in the United States, there were 43 crashes per million miles driven for 16 year-olds, 30 crashes for 17 year-olds, 15 crashes for 18-19 year-olds, and 5 crashes per million miles for all other ages combined.

Table 1
Driver Crash Involvement Per Miles Driven, U.S., 1990

Age Fatal Crashes
per Million Miles
All Crashes
per Million Miles
16 16.8 43.2
17 12.6 30.3
18 7.9 15.8
19 7.2 14.2
16-19 9.3 20.1
20-24 4.9 9.6
25-29 3.1 6.1
30-34 2.4 4.7
35-39 2.1 4.3
40-44 1.8 3.7
45-49 1.9 4.0
50-54 2.0 3.7
55-59 2.1 3.9
60-69 2.5 4.4
65-69 3.8 6.6
70+ 8.0 9.7
All Ages 3.1 6.1

Graduated licensing is based on the premise that accumulation of on-the-road driving is necessary for developing the experience that lowers crash risk. At the same time, it makes sense for early driving experience to be gained in lower risk settings. Accordingly, graduated licensing is a three-stage system, starting with a learner's permit period that involves driving under supervision for a minimum period of time. Once the learner's period has been completed, a restricted license can be issued that allows unsupervised driving in some circumstances but not others for a specified period. Restrictions are gradually and systematically lifted provided the driver's record remains free of violations and crashes, leading to the third stage of an unrestricted license. The requirement that a specified minimum amount of time be spent in the learning and restricted stages not only allows the acquisition of driving experience in lower risk, more forgiving settings, but it also delays the full privilege of driving until people are older and more mature.

There are four graduated licensing systems now in place -- New Zealand; Victoria, Australia; and Ontario and Nova Scotia, Canada -- which differ in terms of the length of time it takes to go through the system and the types of driving restrictions. Key restrictions in terms of minimizing driving in high risk situations once an initial license has been obtained are night driving curfews (New Zealand, Nova Scotia) and limitations on transporting teenage passengers (New Zealand). Night driving curfews for beginning drivers have been found to be very effective in reducing crashes (Preusser et al., 1984). In the United States, the yearly number of teenagers killed as passengers almost equals the number killed as drivers. Two-thirds of the deaths of teenagers as passengers occur in vehicles driven by teenagers, and 16 year-old drivers contribute disproportionately to these deaths (Williams and Wells, 1995). New Zealand's provision restricting beginning license holders from transporting passengers unless an adult is present has been found to reduce teenage passenger injuries in vehicles driven by other teenagers (Frith and Perkins, 1992). The presence of other teenagers in the car, which can provide distraction and promote driving behavior that heightens risk, creates a particular problem for young inexperienced drivers.

A few state laws in the United States include elements of graduated licensing, for example, nine states have night driving curfews. However, in the majority of states a quick and easy route to full privilege driving at a young age is allowed. Most of the 50 states and the District of Columbia license at age 16, which is a year or two earlier than in many other countries. Six states license at age 15 and one at age 14. Only one state -- New Jersey -- withholds licensure until age 17. Only 30 jurisdictions require a learner's permit to be obtained before licensure; 26 require that driver education be obtained. Of the jurisdictions that require learner's permits, only 11 require that they be held for a minimum period of time, ranging from 14 days to 90 days (Williams et al., 1995). Current licensing laws in the United States exacerbate the young driver problem.

There is now a developing movement toward graduated licensing in the United States, with most of the major safety organizations behind it. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is promoting graduated licensing, as it has done in the past (Teknekron, 1977), and is providing funding to Alaska and North Carolina to implement and evaluate graduated licensing systems. Several other states are considering provisions of graduated licensing. The model system described by NHTSA and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators includes a permit stage of 6 months, a 12-month restricted licensing stage, a night driving curfew, and zero alcohol tolerance. The National Transportation Safety Board (1993) has recommended that states enact graduated licensing, especially with night driving curfews, and has been promoting such legislation in letters to governors and state legislative leaders. The National Administrative License Revocation Coalition, comprised of 35 public and private safety and health organizations, has endorsed the concept and recommended that its members support state action on graduated licensing.

In setting licensing policies, what societies are deciding -- whether or not this is made explicit -- is how to balance the tradeoff between safety for both young drivers and others that share the roads with them, and the mobility needs and desires of young people.

The ability to drive without adult supervision brings with it independence and freedom along with peer recognition. Getting a driver's license as early as possible is a goal of most teenagers, and it is an event of great importance and significance to them. Mobility needs and desires thus include more than mere transportation.

When restrictions such as night driving curfews have been considered in the United States in the past, they have not gone very far. There is accommodation to curfews and other restrictions where they exist; for example, in states with night driving curfews, the majority of teenagers say they are in favor of them (Opinion Research Corporation, 1985). However, restrictions are necessarily introduced in the context of taking away something that teenage drivers now have and want, and they receive little support. Parents and other adults strongly support graduated licensing in surveys (e.g., Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 1994), but this does not necessarily mean they want restrictions to apply to their own children. Issues of discrimination, fairness, and hardship created by mobility restrictions are raised, and a licensing system that is considered pro-teenager by its proponents is portrayed as anti-teenager by others. Graduated licensing does entail some restrictions on mobility. However, most night driving curfews in force in the United States allow exemptions for driving to work or school during the restricted hours. And to the extent that graduated licensing systems delay full licensure, there is evidence to suggest that this does not significantly hinder social activities. A survey of more than 50,000 high school students in seven states indicated that 16 year-olds have largely similar lifestyles, in terms of social, dating, and work patterns, whether they live in states where many, few, or no 16 year-olds are licensed (Preusser, Williams, and Lund, 1985).

Acceptability of graduated licensing in the United States hinges on acknowledgment that the high rates young driver crashes and fatalities are unacceptable at present levels and that new policies are needed to effectively address the problem. Certainly, statistics on young driver crashes speak to this; so do the many well-publicized examples of serious young driver crashes that involve inexperience and youthful exuberance.

It is also important to use as a guide the experience of other countries with graduated licensing in regard to its effectiveness, costs, operational feasibility, impact on new drivers, and public reactions. New Zealand's experience indicates that a system that reduces injuries (Frith and Perkins, 1992) can also be acceptable to those most directly affected. Interviews with New Zealand teenagers before and after they went through the graduated system indicated that, "Overall, these young drivers were positively disposed toward the driving restrictions" (Begg et al., 1994).

Clearly, it will be a challenge to change present U.S. licensing laws in ways that enhance safety and still have public acceptability. It may be a lengthy process to institute graduated licensing, compromises will have to be made, and the ideal graduated licensing system from a safety standpoint may never be implemented. The huge public safety problem that results from allowing full driving privileges to very young, very inexperienced drivers makes graduated licensing a worthy goal to pursue.


Begg, D.J.; Langley, J.D.; Reeder, A. I.; and Chalmers, D.J. (1994). The New Zealand Graduated Driver Licensing System: The attitudes towards and the experience of teenagers to this car drivers licensing system. Dunedin, New Zealand: Injury Prevention Research Unit, University of Otago Medical School.

Bergeron, J. (1991). Behavioral, attitudinal and physiological characteristics of young drivers in simulated driving tasks as a function of past accident and violations. Paper presented at New to the Road Symposium, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Brown, I.D. and Groeger, J.A. (1988). Risk perception and decision taking during the transition between novice and experienced drivers status. Ergonomics 31:585-597.

Frith, W.J. and Perkins, W.A. (1992). The New Zealand graduated licensing system. Paper presented at the National Road Safety Seminar, Wellington, New Zealand.

Groegor, J.A. and Brown, I.D. (1989). Assessing one's own and others driving ability: Influences of sex, age, and experience. Accident Analysis and Prevention 21:155-168.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 1994. All the 16 year-olds didn't make it home. Status Report 29 (13). Arlington, VA: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Jonah, B.A. (1986). Accident risk and risk-taking behavior among young drivers. Accident Analysis and Prevention 18:255-271.

Matthews, M.L. and Moran, A.R. (1986). Age differences in male drivers' perception of accident risk: The role of perceived driving ability. Accident Analysis and Prevention 18:299-313.

National Transportation Safety Board (1993). Report of Youth involvement in traffic crashes. Washington, D.C.

Opinion Research Corporation. 1985. Teenage driving curfews: A market research study to determine teenagers' awareness of and attitudes toward driving curfews in four states. Princeton, NJ: Opinion Research Corporation.

Preusser, D.F.; Williams, A.F.; and Lund, A.K. 1985. Driver licensing age and lifestyles of 16 year olds. American Journal of Public Health 75: 358-360.

Preusser, D.F.; Williams, A.F.; Zador, P.L.; and Blomberg, R.D. (1984). The effect of curfew laws on motor vehicle crashes. Law and Policy 6:115-128.

Quimby, A.R. and Watts, G.R. (1981). Human factors and driving performance. Report No. 1004. Berkshire, England: Transportation and Road Research Laboratory.

Romanowicz, P.A. and Gebers, M.A. (1990). Teen and Senior Drivers. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Teknekron, Inc. (1977). Model for Provisional (graduated) Licensing of Young Novice Drivers. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, DOT-HS-8020313.

Williams, A.F. and Wells, J.K. (1995). Deaths of teenagers as motor vehicle passengers. Journal of Safety Research. In press.

Williams, A.F.; Weinberg, K.; Fields, M.; and Ferguson, S.A. (1995). Current requirements for getting a driver's license in the United States. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Virginia.


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