Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers For generations, getting behind the wheel for the first time meant excitement, romance and danger. But now, most states have adopted new rules aimed at taking some of the danger out of learning to drive -- and perhaps a little of the fun.
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Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers

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Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers

Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers

Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers

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Teen driver
Robert Llewellyn/CORBIS

U.S. Licensing Laws

A majority of U.S. states have adopted laws that take a graduated approach to licensing teen drivers. Find out what the law is in your state with this chart from the National Transportation Safety Board.

For generations, getting behind the wheel for the first time meant excitement, romance and danger. But now, most states have adopted new rules aimed at taking some of the danger out of learning to drive --and perhaps a little of the fun.

Hillary Bragg, 16, lopes off the soccer field, wearing a bright red uniform and even brighter smile. This week, Bragg got her driver's license.

"I celebrated, danced around a little," she says of that rite of passage. "I yelled, 'I got my license!'"

Soon after, she drove over to a friend's house, and the two just sat in the car together.

"We couldn't drive anywhere," she says, adding, "It's pretty lame."

Lame maybe, but Bragg will have to put up with it for a while. A new law in Maryland, where Bragg lives, bars new drivers from driving with anyone who isn't a relative for five months. They have a midnight curfew and aren't allowed to use a cell phone while driving.

More than 40 other states have adopted similar rules, for one simple reason: New drivers really are a menace, says Susan Baker, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.

"Sixteen-year-old drivers are 10 times as likely as drivers in their 30s and 40s and 50s to be involved in a crash," Baker says. "They're twice as likely as 18- and 19-year-old drivers."

Baker says the causes of those crashes fit the stereotype, as well: speeding, overtaking cars, driving too closely.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of peer pressure, perhaps to drive faster, to do things more recklessly," she says.

The risk increases with the number of teen passengers in the vehicle. Sue Ferguson of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that two teen passengers usually doubles the crash rate. Three or more triples it.

If the passengers are teenage boys, and they're on the road at night, the risk climbs still higher.

"Most of their fatal -- their serious -- crashes involve just a single vehicle," Ferguson says. "So it's not usually because another vehicle suddenly appears from nowhere. It's because they're taking risks that most of us wouldn't."

Changing teenagers' driving behavior hasn't worked. That's why states are lining up behind what's called "graduated licensing." The idea is not so much to change the way teens drive, but to change the circumstances under which they drive.

So, instead of a quick trip to the DMV on their 16th birthday, teenagers face a longer -- and far more tedious -- rite of passage.

The first stage is a learner's permit. While the rules vary by state, teens typically need to hold their learner's permits for months, not days, and spend at least 30 hours practicing with an adult. Then comes a restricted license, with passenger limits and a curfew, and finally, a full license. Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, says the states are moving in the right direction.

"You can take a look at the tremendous progress and the momentum of this issue," Rosenker says. He says a majority of states have some form of graduated licensing. "We had zero 13 years ago," he says. That's when the NTSB threw its support behind the idea.

Not all teenagers are obeying the new laws. But enough are that it's making a difference. Johns Hopkins' Baker has pulled together the data on fatalities among 16-year-old drivers from all over the country.

"We found that states that had the most comprehensive graduated driver licensing laws had the largest reductions -- on average, about a 20 percent reduction in fatal crashes," she says. States that had weaker licensing laws did not show any improvement, she says.

Legislators and parents pay attention to findings like these. So it's possible that soon, more states will be placing more hurdles in the path of teenagers clamoring to hit the road.