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Over the past two decades, all 50 states have implemented graduated driver licensing or “GDL” laws. These laws mandate special requirements for new drivers under the age of 18 and introduce driving privileges gradually by restricting driving during the first six months to one year of being licensed.

GDL systems are known to have reduced crash involvement of 16 and 17-year-old drivers, but some studies have suggested that strong GDL laws may increase fatal crash involvement of 18 and 19-year-old drivers. Concerns have emerged that teens may be waiting to obtain their first license until they are old enough to avoid the additional requirements, missing the opportunity to gain experience under the less risky conditions of the GDL system.

How many teens delay getting their driver's licenses, and why do they wait? Could this be a serious safety problem? The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety surveyed over a thousand young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 to answer these questions.

Most Teens Wait to Drive

Getting a driver's license has long been considered a major rite of passage for American teenagers. However, even before GDL laws were introduced, it was common for teens to wait to obtain their licenses. Studies from the 1980s and 1990s show that the majority of teens did not actually obtain their licenses immediately.

While data shortcomings make it difficult to compare the timing of teen licensing over past decades, the AAA study found that the majority of teens today do not get licensed right away either. Only 44% of teens surveyed had obtained a driver's license within a year of the minimum age for licensing in their state, and only 54% had obtained one by their 18th birthday. 51% had obtained a learner permit within 12 months of the minimum permit age in their state, and 72% had obtained one before their 18th birthday.

The proportion of the entire driving-age population holding a license has declined, falling from 90% in 1992 to 86% in 2011 according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, but there is no evidence that this shift is a result of teens delaying getting their license.

Graduated Licensing Laws Not to Blame for Delay

When young people who did not obtain a license before they turned 18 were asked why they did not obtain their license sooner, the predominant reasons were related to opportunity, cost, and motivation:

  • 44% did not have a car
  • 39% could get around without driving
  • 36% reported that the overall cost of driving was too high
  • 35% “just didn’t get around to it”

In comparison, fewer respondents considered factors related to GDL laws to be important reasons:

  • 23% indicated that special requirements made it hard to get licensed at a younger age
  • 21% did not want a license with special restrictions that only applied to young drivers
  • 19% wanted to avoid taking driver's education

Furthermore, if teens were waiting to get licensed to avoid the GDL system, we could expect more of them to obtain their licenses soon after their 18th birthday. The AAA study found that this was not the case. Of 19 and 20-year-olds who had not obtained a license before they turned 18, fewer than 1 in 3 obtained it before they turned 19. Of those who didn’t even have a learner permit before turning 18, fewer than 1 in 5 obtained a license before they turned 19.

Safety Concerns

Even if teens aren’t trying to avoid the GDL system, many are missing out on its safety benefits.

Based on the licensing rates found in the AAA study, between one-third and one-half of all young people who eventually become licensed drivers will do so outside the GDL system.

The AAA survey also found significant differences in licensing rates related to income and race, suggesting that most minority and low-income young people are even less likely to experience the GDL system and receive its intended benefits.

Of respondents whose households had annual incomes of $60,000 or more:

  • 60% were licensed within one year of their state’s minimum age
  • 72% were licensed before age 18

Of respondents whose households had annual incomes of less than $20,000:

  • 16% were licensed within one year of their state’s minimum age
  • 25% were licensed before age 18

Only 32% of respondents who identified themselves as black or Hispanic were licensed before age 18, compared to 67% of non-Hispanic whites.

Strengthening GDL Systems

Further research is needed to investigate risk factors for older novice drivers and to evaluate the potential benefits of expanding GDL systems, but some states are already taking steps to fill in the gaps. Illinois has passed a law requiring new drivers ages 18 to 21 who did not take drivers education in high school to complete an adult drivers education course before obtaining a license. The law will go into effect next July.

Even among younger teens, there is still room for improvement within current GDL systems. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated the potential reduction in crashes and fatal crashes that could be achieved by altering GDL provisions in each state. Recommended steps include raising the permit age to 16 and the licensing age to 17, along with increased practice hours, night driving restrictions, and passenger restrictions.

“It Takes Two” to Become a Safe Driver

Parental involvement is a crucial factor, but a study released by State Farm Insurance last month revealed that teens may not be adhering to driving restrictions as well as their parents think they are. Two-thirds of parents reported that they actively enforced night driving and passenger limitations, but only one-third of teens indicated the same. About 70% of parents thought that their teens almost always followed the rules, but less than half of teens reported doing so.

National Teen Driver Safety Week, which runs from October 20-26, will address parent-teen cooperation with this year’s theme, “It Takes Two: Shared Expectations for Teens and Parents for Driving.” The TeenDriverSource website, created by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, provides information and tips for both parents and guardians and teens to help teens become safe and skilled drivers.