Study: Graduated driver's licensing saves teens' lives

Nick DiUlio

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has some good news for parents of teen drivers: Graduated driver's licensing programs are working -- and saving lives.

According to Anne McCartt, the highway safety institute's senior vice president for research, an analysis of teen crash deaths shows that fatality rates have plummeted since 1996, the year that states first began enacting graduated driver's licensing (GDL) programs. The greatest decline occurred among 16-year-olds, with fatal crashes dropping by 68 percent between 1996 and 2010. Fatal crashes fell 59 percent for 17-year-olds, 52 percent for 18-year-olds and 47 percent for 19-year-olds.

“When you look at the last 15 years or so, as states have implemented these programs, there has been a lot of success in reducing fatal crashes,” McCartt says. “But there are still improvements to be made.”

The study, which the highway safety institute conducted in conjunction with the Highway Loss Data Institute, suggests that if every state adopted all five components of the toughest young driver laws in the country, more than 500 lives could be saved and more than 9,500 crashes could be prevented each year. Furthermore, a dozen states could cut traffic deaths rates by more than half among 15- to 17-year-olds if they adopted the strongest GDL provisions.

“Some states would benefit more than others," McCartt says, "but the bottom line is that everyone would benefit in the end.”

Teens and car insurance

But will declining death rates for teens involved in crashes affect the cost of car insurance for teen drivers, which often is 40 to 50 times more expensive than the average adult policy? Probably not, says Mike Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.

“While a fatality is certainly the most tragic occurrence in any accident, day-to-day claims are primarily being filed for property damage, bodily injury and liability,” Barry says. “So a decrease in fatality statistics alone isn’t going to significantly change the general trend, which is that if you are between the ages of 18 and 25, you’re going to be paying more for insurance.”

What makes a good GDL program

A GDL program has three stages: a supervised learner’s period, an intermediate license (after passing a road test) that limits driving in high-risk situations except under supervision, and a license with full privileges. But not all GDL programs are created equal. McCartt says the five key components to a successful system are the age when a learner's permit is issued, the age when a license is issued, the number of hours of practice driving required, and restrictions on nighttime driving and teen passengers.

The study highlights states that have the best GDL components. Examples include:

  • A minimum intermediate licensing age of 17 in New Jersey.
  • A minimum permit age of 16 in Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
  • At least 65 supervised practice hours in Pennsylvania.
  • A ban on all teen passengers in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Room for improvement

Since 2000, the highway safety institute has been rating states with the best GDL laws from good to poor. Initially, only six states and D.C. earned good ratings; nine were considered poor. By May 2011, 36 states and D.C. rated good, seven rated fair and seven were marginal; none of the states earned poor ratings.

However, McCartt says, state legislators have been sluggish in toughening their states' GDL laws in recent years, particularly when it comes to bumping up the age for a permit or license. During the 2010-12 legislative sessions, for instance, nine states strengthened aspects of their laws for young drivers, compared with 20 states during the 2007-09 sessions.

To highlight the benefits of GDL programs, the two institutes developed an online calculator that shows safety gains that states could realize by adopting some of the most effective GDL components. In addition to highlighting best practices, the calculator also shows the estimated fatal-crash and collision-claim reductions that a state might achieve with various combinations of changes in GDL laws.

Take South Dakota for instance. The state, which has the youngest licensing age in the country, currently allows 14-year-olds to obtain a learner’s permit and a license just three months later. According to the study, if South Dakota raised its license age to 17, the benefit would be an estimated 32 percent reduction in fatal crash rates among 15- to 17-year-old drivers and a 13 percent reduction in collision claims among 16- to 17-year-old motorists. Even raising the license age to 15 years and six months could reduce fatal crashes by an estimated 16 percent and collision claims by 6 percent among teen drivers.

Raising the driving age "becomes a politically challenging case to make,” says Richard Harkness, CEO of ADEPT Driver, creator of teenSMART, a program aimed at reducing car crashes among teen drivers and lowering teens' car insurance premiums. “Here in California, I supported an initiative that would have raised the age from 18 to 20, but the legislature said it couldn’t do that, even though it would allow new drivers to go through the driving learning curve at a much safer age. To me, it just makes sense, but it was never going to happen.”

According to the study, even the best states have room for improvement. For example, Connecticut’s GDL law comes closest to being the best system. The state makes teens wait until age 16 for a permit and restricts all teen passengers during the intermediate stage of licensing. However, if Connecticut also adopted the best provisions for practice hours, license age and nighttime driving, it could see a 17 percent reduction in deadly crashes and a 13 percent drop in collision claims among teen drivers.

“I think this was a very comprehensive and well-executed study that offers some excellent information upon which lawmakers can take future steps to make driving even safer for teens,” says Barry, the Insurance Information Institute spokesman. “This all falls in line with what people in the insurance industry have seen for many years, which is that a gradual, phased-in approach to full licensure appears to be the best way to promote overall safety.”

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