Turning Teens into Safer Drivers

teen driverWhen we reported on teen driver safety in 2010, 16- to 20-year-old drivers had the highest fatal crash rate of any age group in the United States. To help address this, many states adopted laws restricting teen driving. Late last year, our work led to federal action that may help states with the design of these laws.

Because it’s National Teen Driver Safety Week, buckle up for a crash course in graduated driver licensing laws and their effects on teen driver safety.

Putting the brakes on risk

Teens tend to engage in higher risk behaviors. While you can’t force teens to make better decisions, graduated driver licensing laws can help mitigate risks behind the wheel. How? By requiring things like

  • a learner’s permit stage when more experienced drivers supervise new ones
  • limited or no driving after dark
  • limits on the number of passengers
  • no phones or other electronic devices while driving
  • driver’s ed courses.

The results have been promising. In 2010, we found that most states had enacted such restrictions, contributing to a decline in fatalities from crashes involving teens.

Making a detour

While studies showed that graduated licensing systems improved safety, questions remained about the best provisions to include.

Unfortunately, the available research was limited, with no clear answers about the optimal mix of age, learner’s permit phase, nighttime driving, passenger restrictions, and so on.

States also took different approaches. For example, teen drivers in South Carolina were prohibited from driving at all at night, from 6pm to 6am, while teens in Virginia were only kept off the roads between midnight and 4am.

As a result, safety organizations offered states different advice about how to restrict teen drivers, and states didn’t have a good way to determine which restrictions or combination of restrictions would be best.

Going the extra mile

To help states have the information they need to make good choices about teen driver safety, in 2010 we recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conduct additional research on the optimum graduated driver license system. In September 2014, NHTSA showed us a draft evaluation of various systems.

When published, the evaluation could help states modify their existing graduated driver licenses to improve the safety of teen drivers, and those who share the road with them.


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