Strict Graduated Drive Licensing Effective for Teen Drivers at 16, but Not at 18

States with strict GDL programs are reducing the number of deaths caused by 16-yeard-old drivers, but are increasing in deaths of 18-year-old drivers.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, states with the strictest graduated drive licensing (GDL) programs are effectively reducing the number of deaths caused by 16-yeard-old drivers, but researchers found that the same states actually suffered an increase of deaths in 18-year-old drivers.

States which enforce tougher GDL programs enforce certain restrictions on young drivers, such as restricting the number of passengers allowed in the vehicle when a teen driver is at the wheel, limiting night time driving, and putting a stop to cell phone use.

In the past decade, 37,000 teenagers have died due to motor vehicle accidents, making car accidents the leading cause of death for teenagers.

Since the enforcement of the new stricter GDL programs and laws in 1996, there have been 1,348 fewer fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers, but there has been an increase in crashes involving 18-year-olds—the rate is up by 1,086 more accidents.

The researchers analyzed data on a national scale from the year 1986 to the year 2007; they found that states with strict GDL programs had a 26% lower rate of fatal crashes involving first-time, 16-year-old drivers than in states that do not restrict teen drivers from driving after dark or having fewer people in the car.

While this find is encouraging, the researchers also established that states enforcing GDL programs had a 12% increase in the fatal crash rate of 18-year-olds.

"Right now, we're not getting the net effect across all teens that we're hoping for," stated Masten, "We're getting this washout where we do save some lives overall, but not nearly what we thought it [would be]."

While Masten and his colleagues could not offer a definitive explanation for the increase in motor vehicle deaths involving 18-year-olds, they theorized that it may be a type of “payback” from the newly freed drivers in response to the restrictions placed on them when they were younger.

Also, another possibility is that some teens in states enforcing strict GDL programs are just waiting until they turn 18 to get their drivers license, which limits driving experience.

"They're saying, 'Forget it. I'll wait till I'm 18,'" reported Scott V. Masten, PhD, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, in Sacramento. "We have, at least in California, more novice 18- and 19-year-olds with no driving experience."

Despite this somewhat disappointing find, there are still many advocates for the tough GDL programs. Anne McCartt, PhD, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, coauthored an editorial accompanying the new study. In it she stated that this study, as well as other research, indicates the effectiveness of restrictive GDL programs on curbing accidents involving young teen drivers.

McCartt wrote that while "the evidence is mixed at this point about how GDL affects older teens, I don't think there's any study that hasn't found a large benefit for 16-year-olds."

"It's not just the teen drivers who are dying on our highways," reported Jackie Gillan, of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "It's the teen passengers and it's other people like you and me who are sharing the road with these teens."

She continued to say that states which establish a strict GDL program "have found that it almost immediately results in saving lives."

Many advocates of the GDL program are currently pursuing the passage of a federal graduated licensing law.

"It doesn't make sense, when we know that they will save so many lives, to have a different set of rules for different rules in different states,” said Gillan.

This study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.