Graduated Driver Licensing – We’ve Come a Long Way

By Robert Sumwalt

Teen Driver
May is National Youth Traffic Safety Month

Talk to people who have been driving for 20 or 30 years and ask them what it was like to get their drivers license. You will realize quickly that things are really different now. Back then, you could go to your local DMV on your 16th birthday, pass a test, and walk out of there with a license that gave you full, unfettered driving privileges. It was as simple as that. In fact, you could leave the DMV, go pick up a carload of your friends at the high school, and celebrate your birthday until late that night. It was great! Or was it?

A lot has changed since those days, I think for the better. Many states today have graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs in which new drivers attain full driving privileges in stages. After completing one stage, a novice driver “graduates” to the next stage, gaining more responsibility, such as driving without a supervising adult or driving at later hours.

GDL programs are designed to introduce new drivers to the driving task slowly, allowing the new driver to practice and improve in controlled conditions. The NTSB issued a recommendation to states to implement GDL programs back in 1993. Since then, the NTSB has added recommendations aimed at reducing distractions for novice drivers, distractions like using a wireless communication device while driving or transporting other teen passengers in the car.

Why are these recommendations for teen drivers so important? Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. Teen drivers comprise less than 7 percent of the driving population, yet they represent more than 13 percent of drivers involved in deadly crashes.

Multiple studies have concluded that GDL programs are effective in improving teen driving safety. In fact, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in 2007 that states with strong teen driver safety programs experienced 40% lower rates of injury crash involvement by 16 year-olds.

In 1996, Florida became the first state to implement a GDL program, and states continue to take action to address their teen drivers. Two weeks ago, North Dakota strengthened its driver licensing laws. The new legislation prohibits drivers under age 18 from using an electronic communication device while driving, and teenagers under age 16 are required to complete 50 hours of supervised driving practice before obtaining the initial driver’s license that also has a night time driving restriction. North Dakota’s new law is a step on the side of safety that will lead to fewer teen deaths on the highway.

May is National Youth Traffic Safety Month, a time when we place special emphasis on finding ways to improve teen driver safety. I hope every state will take steps to help our youngest drivers become safe drivers.


Member Robert SumwaltRobert L. Sumwalt has been a Member of the NTSB since 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the blog.

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