Graduated Drivers Licensing Systems for Novice Drivers

WHEREAS young novice drivers have the highest crash rates of any age group,

WHEREAS research shows that specific driving restrictions for novice drivers substantially reduce the crash risk of these young drivers,

WHEREAS graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems with at least three stages have been shown to be effective in reducing the crash rate of novice drivers,

WHEREAS research indicates that GDL should apply to novice drivers up to the age of 21,

WHEREAS GDL systems with a variety of requirements have been adopted in all States in the United States and Australia, most Provinces in Canada, and many European countries,

Adopted: 2004 and updated October 2017


BE IT RESOLVED all jurisdictions should adopt graduated driver licensing systems for novice drivers up to age 21 also global collaboration and funding for further research is recommended:

  1. A learner stage with a requirement for documenting a minimum number of hours of driving with a fully licensed driver over age 21.
  2. A second (intermediate/provisional) stage that includes a nighttime driving restriction, a limit of one teenage passenger, and lasts a specified time period.
  3. Zero tolerance for any alcohol or impairing drug in a driver until full licensure (at the earliest).
  4. A requirement for appropriate restraint use by every occupant in a vehicle driven by a novice driver.
  5. No ability to obtain full licensure (the final stage) until the driver successfully completes the requirements of the first two stages.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the AAAM recommends global collaboration and funding for further research to determine:

  1. The optimal number of hours of supervised driving needed to ensure the safety of novice drivers.
  2. The optimum combination and duration of restrictions during the provisional/intermediate stage.
  3. The effects of in-vehicle distractions on the crash risk of novice drivers and the best countermeasures to reduce these distraction.
  4. The most effective means of driver education to decrease the crash rate of novice drivers.


The Problem

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young people aged 16 to 20 in the United States, accounting for approximately 26% of their deaths (Webb, 2016). Young drivers aged 15 to 20 make up between 8 and 9% of the U.S. population but only about 5 to 6% of the licensed drivers; however, they are involved in between 8 and 9% of the fatal traffic crashes each year (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA], 2017). In recent years, between 4,000 and 5,000 fatalities have occurred in crashes involving young drivers aged 15 to 20 (NHTSA, 2017). Crashes involving young drivers aged 15 to 20 cost the U.S. economy an estimated $42.3 billion each year (Blincoe et al., 2002). About 20% of young drivers (aged 15-20) involved in fatal crashes are estimated to be drinking before their crash (NHTSA, 2017). Sixteen-year-old drivers have crash rates that are three times greater than 17-year-olds, five times greater than 18-year-olds, and even twice those of drivers aged 85 and older in the United States (McCartt et al., 2003). Research has indicated that three factors play a prominent role in crashes involving teenagers: (1) inexperience, immaturity and risk taking, and greater exposure to risk (Masten, 2004; Senserrick & Haworth, 2004).

Young drivers start out with very little knowledge or understanding of the complexities of driving a motor vehicle. Many young drivers act impulsively, use poor judgment, and participate in high-risk behaviors (Beirness et al., 2004). Teens often drive at night with other teens in the car, which substantially increases their risk of a crash (Chen et al., 2000). When these factors are combined with inadequate driving skills, excessive speeds, drinking and driving, distractions from teenaged passengers, and a low rate of safety belt use, crash injury rates accelerate rapidly (Masten, 2004; Masten & Chapman, 2004).

Response to High Teen Crash Rates

Over the last two decades, an effective strategy of extending the period of supervised driving and limiting the novice’s exposure to higher-risk conditions, such as nighttime driving, has substatially reduced crash involvements (Williams & Ferguson, 2002; Chen et al., 2006; McCartt et al., 2009; Masten et al., 2011; Fell et al., 2011). Research around the world has shown that the first few months of licensure for young novice drivers entail the highest crash risk (Mayhew et al., 2003; McCartt et al., 2003; Sagberg, 1998). This high crash rate of novice drivers in the first few months suggests that restricting driving in situations known to be risky during this initial licensure period is one option for dealing with this vulnerability. To address this issue, all states have adopted GDL systems requiring that progression to full license privileges occur in stages (NHTSA, 2006). The rationale for GDL is to extend the period of supervised driving, thus permitting beginners to acquire their initial on-the-road driving experience under lower-risk conditions; in contrast, the historic licensing systems in most states generally allow a quick and easy path to full driving privileges at a young age, resulting in extremely high crash rates for beginning drivers.

GDL systems vary widely, but typically, there is a required supervised learning stage of 6 months or more, followed by an intermediate or provisional license stage of at least several months with restrictions on high-risk driving before a driver “graduates” to full license privileges. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—along with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the National Safety Council (NSC), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)—established such a three-stage national model for GDL to introduce driving privileges gradually to beginning drivers. Under these systems, novice drivers are required to demonstrate responsible driving behavior (no traffic offenses) in each stage before advancing to the next stage. After novice drivers have graduated from supervised driving and independent driving, most GDL systems restrict nighttime driving and carrying passengers among other provisions until the novice driver is fully licensed.

Evaluations of state programs clearly show the benefits of adopting GDL systems. The Florida law resulted in a 9% reduction in crashes for 16- and 17-year-old drivers (Ulmer et al., 2000). Evaluations in North Carolina (Foss et al., 2001; Foss & Goodwin, 2003) and Michigan (Shope et al., 2001; Shope & Molnar, 2004) indicated reductions of 26 to 27% in crashes for 16-year-old drivers in the GDL systems. Under the GDL system in Nova Scotia, Canada, researchers reported a 24% reduction in crashes for 16-year-old drivers (Mayhew et al., 2001). Earlier independent studies have shown that nighttime restrictions for teenage drivers are effective in reducing crashes (Williams & Preusser, 1997), as are teen passenger restrictions (Preusser et al., 1998; Chen et al., 2000)—two key components in GDL systems. Chen, Baker, and Li (2006), in a national evaluation of GDL programs in the United States, found that the presence of GDL programs in the states was associated with an 11% decrease in the fatal crash rate involving 16-year-old drivers.

Graduated Driver Licensing

To address the young driver problem, traffic safety officials from several organizations in the United States have developed a licensing system that prolongs the learning process for beginning drivers and restricts their driving to less risky conditions. Based upon this concept, NHTSA and the American Association for Motor Vehicle Administrators, with assistance from IIHS, NSC, and NTSB, have developed an entry-level licensing program that gives young beginning drivers more time to learn the complex skills required to drive a motor vehicle. The system, called “graduated driver licensing,” consists of three stages: a learner’s permit stage, an intermediate or provisional license stage, and a full licensure stage.

Nighttime and Teen Passenger Restrictions

One key component of GDL during the intermediate stage is the nighttime restriction that requires the presence of an adult while driving. This nighttime restriction is designed to reduce the risk of late-night driving-and-drinking and driving by beginning drivers. Most underage drinking takes place at night, so this restriction on driving is designed to at least prevent the underage drinker from driving. It also may reduce underage drinking itself because the beginning driver is not allowed to drive to the location where the underage drinking takes place during these nighttime hours. Research on individual state GDL systems has shown an effect of nighttime restrictions on all crashes (rather than just fatal crashes) involving beginning drivers (Williams & Preusser, 1997; Mayhew et al., 2003). More recent research showed that nighttime restrictions reduced involvement of drivers aged 16-17 in nighttime fatal crashes by an estimated 10% and drinking drivers aged 16-17 in nighttime fatal crashes by 13% (Fell et al., 2011a).

Teen passengers increase the crash risk of novice drivers (Williams & Ferguson, 2002). Several studies (Farrow, 1987; Doherty et al., 1998; Preusser et al., 1998; Aldrige et al., 1999; Chen et al., 2000) have documented the increased risk posed by passengers distracting the novice driver or encouraging risky behavior. As a result, the inclusion in GDL laws of a restriction against transporting underage passengers during the early period of solo driving is recommended by the NHTSA and the IIHS. Begg and Stephenson (2003) found a 9% reduction in crashes involving teenage passengers following the enactment in New Zealand of a restriction on teenage passengers. Smith et al. (2001) found a 23% reduction in injuries per licensed driver following the addition of a teen passenger prohibition in the California GDL law. Fell et al., (2011) concluded that passenger restrictions reduced involvement of drivers aged 16-17 in fatal crashes with teen passengers by an estimated 9%.

Extending GDL to Age 21

A recent study of GDL laws (Masten, Foss, & Marshall, 2011) found substantial reductions in fatal crashes of 16-year-old drivers associated with the adoption of strong GDL laws (down 26%), but found increases in fatal crashes for 18-year-olds in those same states (up 12%). The authors suggested that strong GDL laws might have delayed licensure of many youth until they were aged 18 to avoid all the GDL provisions and requirements. Fell et al., (2013) found that 1,945 lives associated with GDL laws in general were saved by the reductions in fatal crashes involving drivers aged 16. For the “good” GDL laws, there was a net increase in fatalities of 377 due to the increase in fatal crashes by drivers aged 18, with an additional increase of 855 fatalities if the 19-year-old increase is included. “Good” GDL laws resulted in 2,347 lives saved due to the reduction of drivers aged 16 in fatal crashes but were associated with an increase of 2,724 fatalities from fatal crash involvements of drivers aged 18.

The outcome of these efforts indicate that GDL laws save the lives of the population they target: novice drivers aged 15-17. This favorable impact is even larger for the better GDL programs (i.e., the enacted GDL is “good” according to IIHS). These results also indicate that the lives of some drivers aged 15-17 saved by GDL laws are offset among the associated increases in fatal crashes by drivers aged 18-19. The reasons for the conflict in GDL benefits are unclear. They could be caused by (a) drivers aged 18-19 skipping the GDL phases and beginning to drive at a later age, reducing their driving experience; (b) drivers aged 18-19 exhibiting more risk-taking behaviors (e.g., impaired driving, lack of safety belt use, distracted driving) than younger drivers; (c) drivers aged 18-19 having increased exposure to risk for a fatal crash (e.g., more late-night driving; more driving on high-speed roads); and/or (d) drivers aged 18-19 who have gone through the two phases of GDL lacking driving experience under risky conditions because of all the restrictions in the GDL laws. Whatever the reasons, this finding suggests that GDL laws should be applied to protect novice drivers older than ages 16 and 17 and up to age 21. However, further research is needed to clarify this issue.


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