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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
August 10, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
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County May Owe Duty to Intoxicated Driver and Deceased Passengers If Edge Dropoff Contributing Cause of Crash
Injury to Child Leaving Ice-Cream Truck Did Not Result from Dangerous Condition or Nuisance Created by California City
Michigan City Immune from Liability When No Admissible Evidence Showed Intersection Was Unsafe
Can Graduated Licensing Lessen Risks for Young Drivers?
Washington State Study Focused on Bicycle-Collision Statistics from 1988-1993
Automotive Engineering Describes Effectiveness of Restraints and Air Bags in Preventing Injuries to Children

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Can Graduated Licensing Lessen Risks for Young Drivers?

In October 1995, the Transportation Research Board Committee on Operator Education and Regulation sponsored a workshop on graduated licensing--a process to help ensure that young drivers have a certain level of maturity and experience before gaining full driving privileges. The goal of graduated licensing is to reduce the overinvolvement of teenage drivers in motor vehicle crashes.

To provide information and assistance to states considering graduated licensing, the proceedings of the conference were published in a Transportation Research Board Circular (Number 458, April 1996) entitled "Graduated Licensing: Past Experiences and Future Status." The major points of the papers comprising the Circular are summarized here.

BACKGROUND (by Allan F. Williams, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

In a graduated licensing system, "full driving privileges are phased in, with the beginner encouraged to accumulate on-the-road driving experience outside of high risk conditions." Although it is not new, the concept of graduated licensing is currently of considerable interest in the United States. Twenty years ago the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) developed a model graduated licensing system. The system seeks to address the inexperience and immaturity concerns presented by young drivers. The diversity of licensing regulations among the states and the young ages at which Americans take to the roads compounds these concerns. In South Dakota, for example, 14-year-olds may become fully licensed drivers.

Drivers ages 16-19 have significantly higher crash rates compared with older drivers, and traffic crashes are the leading cause of death in this age group. A teenager's likelihood of driving a smaller, older car and not wearing a seatbelt increases the dangers of an elevated crash rate. Teenage drivers are also more likely to be involved in single-car crashes, to make driver errors, to speed or drive too fast for road conditions, and to have three or more passengers, primarily other teenagers. Moreover, alcohol-impaired driving may further endanger teen drivers. Although alcohol-involved crashes have decreased significantly in recent years, alcohol remains a significant problem for young drivers. In addition, nighttime driving presents increased risk for all drivers, especially for teenagers. In 1990, 45 percent of fatalities for drivers ages 16-19 occurred between 9:00 p.m. and 5:59 a.m.

ELEMENTS OF GRADUATED LICENSING (by A. James McKnight, National Public Service Research Institute)

Graduated licensing systems vary to some degree; however, most incorporate three phases or stages. In the initial learner's permit stage, the novice driver may only drive with the supervision of a fully licensed driver. During the intermediate license stage, the driver may drive unsupervised, but only under certain conditions or restrictions. The final stage culminates with the regular driver's license and full driving privileges.

Graduated licensing seeks to reduce both the likelihood and severity of crashes involving novice drivers in three ways: (1) by reducing exposure to risks, (2) by improving driving proficiency, and (3) by enhancing motivation to avoid risky driving and situations. Graduated licensing aims to reduce exposure by: delaying licensing, applying night-driving restrictions, directing passenger limitations, reducing speed limits, requiring restraint use, initiating retesting delays, employing license sanctions, and displaying visible identifiers such as license plates or other distinctive markers. Graduated licensing attempts to improve proficiency primarily through multilevel instruction, multilevel testing, parental guidance, improvement courses for traffic violators, and delayed retests after test failures. Finally, graduated licensing works to motivate novice drivers by lifting restrictions for violation-free driving (providing incentives), imposing license sanctions (providing deterrents), and offering improvement courses to promote safer driving practices.

TYPES OF LICENSING SYSTEMS (by Dan Mayhew and Herb Simpson, Traffic Injury Research Foundation)

Conventional licensing systems serve largely to identify drivers who meet a standard of driving proficiency, generally the minimum requirements deemed necessary to safely operate a vehicle in traffic. Most conventional licensing systems are homogenous in that they treat all drivers the same. Once the driver, regardless of age or experience, passes the vision, knowledge, and road test, the driver assumes full and unrestricted driving status.

Probationary licensing systems recognize that new drivers have higher crash rates and more driving offenses. The threat of punishment in these systems encourages new drivers to drive safely, and the use of punishment discourages those who fail to do so. The belief is that punishment imposed early in one's driving career will promote lifelong safer driving; the system is deemed "fair" because it only punishes violators, rather than all novice drivers. Many jurisdictions have adopted a probationary licensing system, but evaluations of the systems have been few and have noted essentially no impact.

Provisional licensing systems are in effect a probationary system that targets young new drivers as opposed to older new drivers. Such a system also works through the threat and use of punishment, with the hope of motivating young novice drivers to drive safely. But while punishment has not proven an effective deterrent or motivator, some provisional-use restrictions have proven effective, such as night curfew for young novice drivers. Despite its weakness in targeting only young novice drivers instead of all novice drivers, some states have adopted a provisional licensing system with limited success.

Graduated licensing systems are characterized "by their systematic, step-wise approach to full licensing status." They seek to give the novice driver necessary driving experience under conditions that minimize risk, thus easing the driver into the full spectrum of traffic conditions. A comprehensive graduated licensing system might take two years to complete, with stages one and two each lasting six months, and stage three lasting a full twelve months. Such a system might include a strong incentive for safe driving by making phase-three violators start the system over.

LICENSING PRACTICES IN THE UNITED STATES (by Susan A. Ferguson, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

The United States typically licenses drivers at 16 years of age, while many other countries delay licensing until the ages of 17 or 18. In the United States, only New Jersey delays licensing until age 17, six states allow licensing at 15, and one at age 14. Without a parent's permission, the minimum licensing age in the U.S. is 18.

The states also vary in the path prospective drivers must follow for full licensure. All states require vision and written tests, as well as supervised driving before granting a license. Beyond these elements, the practices vary widely. For example, in six states the supervising driver can be any licensed driver, including a 16-year-old driver. Most states require a learner's permit to drive legally before full-license status, but 19 states do not require a learner's permit. Fourteen states require neither a learner's permit nor driver education. In these states, other than the vision and written test, the path to full-license status is prerequisite-free. In the states that do require a learner's permit, both the minimum age at which it can be obtained and the length of time for which it is valid vary from state to state.

The states essentially let parents be the regulators of their children's driving, but evidence suggests that parents can be more rigorous than the states. In a national survey of the parents of licensed 17-year-olds, 90 percent reported their teenage driver had obtained a learner's permit. Parents strongly favored a minimum period of supervised driving, and many wanted more stringent licensing requirements in their state.

INITIAL LICENSES (by David F. Preusser, Preusser Research Group, Inc.)

Young drivers generally view early licensure as a desired goal, though precisely when they will attain that goal depends on individual characteristics, family background, and state requirements. Comparisons among teenagers living in the same state suggest that those who are "advantaged" (two parents with higher levels of education, fewer siblings, and higher school grades) get their licenses earlier. Comparisons among teenagers from different states suggest that when licenses are granted is significantly influenced by the age at which young drivers can obtain a learner's permit, the length of time the permit is valid, the age at which a license may be obtained, and any restrictions that might apply to the license. Understandably, restricted licenses are far less popular than full-privilege licenses.

The primary license restriction in the United States is a night-driving curfew for recreational driving (night driving to and from school or work is exempt). New York has the strongest night curfew, from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., with substantial evidence of fewer crashes during curfew hours. Nine states employ night-driving restrictions in some form, affecting drivers ages 14-17. Lower allowable blood alcohol levels (Zero Tolerance) for young drivers is another restriction of considerable current interest. Thirty-four states have alcohol limits in some form, and they have proven effective in reducing the number of alcohol-involved crashes for young drivers. A number of states will suspend a license following a drug and/or alcohol conviction--which need not be traffic related. Thirty-two states employ such Use and Lose laws. Eleven states also employ post-license restrictions and controls, often based on age and/or time.

Despite substantial data on the numbers of car crashes involving young drivers, the licensing laws affecting young drivers have changed very little in the last 30 years. A graduated licensing system attempts to address both the immaturity and inexperience factors facing young drivers. For example, the immaturity problem occurs mostly when young drivers are engaged in recreational driving; it appears less of a problem in purposeful driving activities. In addition, the carefully systematized delays and restrictions in a graduated licensing system help young drivers gain both maturity and driving experience, so they are better equipped for the demands of full-license status.

GRADUATED LICENSING IN THE UNITED STATES (by James Hedlund and Lori Miller, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

As noted earlier, NHTSA developed a model graduated licensing system 20 years ago. The model recommended that novice drivers under the age of 18 move through a three-stage, two-year licensing process before obtaining an unrestricted license. NHTSA continues to endorse graduated licensing strongly, believing it is "a key component in addressing the overrepresentation of youths in traffic crashes."

In 1979, Maryland became the first state to use some elements of a graduated licensing system, and they decreased crashes by 5 percent and convictions by 10 percent for all 16 and 17-year-old drivers. California and Oregon followed by implementing components of graduated licensing in 1983 and 1989, respectively, and both states have reported a reduction in crashes for young drivers. Other states have since introduced components of a graduated licensing system.

NHTSA has also modified its original model and has awarded $1.2 million in grants to five states to implement and evaluate components of a graduated licensing system. It has also formed a task force to encourage states to set up graduated licensing systems. The task force created a common definition for a graduated licensing system and delineated the "critical" components of such a system.

GRADUATED LICENSING IN ONTARIO AND NOVA SCOTIA (by James Vance, Nova Scotia Department of Motor Vehicles and Lawrence P. Lonero and Kathyrn M. Clinton, Northport Associates)

Following an international symposium (February 1991) that addressed the problems of young drivers, graduated licensing "was strongly recommended for implementation in all Canadian provinces in a manner which best reflects the conditions and circumstances under which collisions occur in each jurisdiction." The continuing and significant problems experienced by new drivers convinced Ontario that its current system of probationary licensing was not as effective as initially anticipated, and the province turned to other possible solutions.

One of those solutions was a graduated licensing system. The public showed a high level of awareness about the concept of graduated licensing, and also a high level of acceptance for the model that was eventually adopted and implemented. The system involves two stages in the licensing process (Level One Class G and Level Two Class G) and incorporates many graduated licensing components discussed earlier. Ontario also started a two-stage licensing process for new motorcyclists (Level One Class M and Level Two Class M), recognizing that they too were a high-risk group.

With the implementation of a graduated licensing system, the probationary licensing system was discontinued. They introduced the graduated licensing system in two phases, the first on April 1, 1994, and the second on June 6, 1994. Because graduated licensing began fairly recently, an evaluation of the system is not yet available. However, the graduated licensing system in Ontario was "intended to be a dynamic living evolving thing, one which will mature with time and one which may be expected to change and adjust as the provincial driving environment changes."

Nova Scotia became the second province to set up a graduated licensing system on October 1, 1994. It affects everyone who applies for a license, regardless of age, though the province give new residents credit for experience they have as licensed drivers. Like Ontario, Nova Scotia started a similar graduated licensing system for motorcyclists. Nova Scotia has also not yet evaluated its system and believes it will be several years before sufficient data are available for an evaluation.

GRADUATED LICENSING AND DRIVER EDUCATION (by Lawrence P. Lonero and Kathryn M. Clinton, Northport Associates)

We can expect graduated licensing systems to affect driver education markets and programs. In the long term, graduated licensing may motivate novice drivers to take driver education classes, which may ultimately increase the driver education market. Graduated licensing may also encourage restructuring driver education, something driver educators and researchers support in theory. Coordinating a graduated licensing system with driver education does raise major questions of organization, sequencing, and cost.

Some researchers have suggested segmenting driver education into two or more distinct stages that correspond to the stages of graduated licensing. For both practicality and plausibility, several multistage designs for driver education models should be developed and tested, and efforts to do that are now beginning. Still, the problems presented by restructuring for multistage driver education are substantial and costly. While much of the discussion about restructuring is speculative, one thing is certain: "Achieving effective multistage training will require a broad and flexible partnership among government, schools, driving schools, communities, and families, as well as insurance and other businesses."

GRADUATED LICENSING: THE PROS AND CONS (by Robert D. Foss, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina)

If graduated licensing is effective (and some evidence suggests it can be), then saving lives and reducing injuries are obvious benefits. Yet graduated licensing offers other benefits. It takes into account the complexities of human behavior and recognizes that driving "is not simply a matter of proper and improper behavior, willfully engaged in." Notably, graduated licensing recognizes that punishment or threats of punishment are not overly effective ways to change driver behavior. Instead, graduated licensing seeks to protect young drivers from the "disastrous consequences" of what for them is a "natural condition," namely lack of maturity and inexperience.

Graduated licensing "is also designed to instill in individuals the habit of exercising caution," accomplished by requiring that new drivers not incur violations during their initial driving period. In addition, graduated licensing seeks to create lifelong safe drivers, recognizing that many driving behaviors, both good and bad, become habitual.

Still, despite these promising signs, graduated licensing systems are still few and far enough between to mean there is not a great deal of empirical data from which to make projections about effectiveness. The graduated licensing system in New Zealand is "comprehensive and well-integrated, [and] it addresses what would appear to be the most important issues. Yet the demonstrated effects of that program over a long period have been modest." In addition, importing a system such as New Zealand's to another culture cannot be accomplished without seriously considering cross-cultural differences. Further, a system that employs some elements of graduated licensing, such as a supervised driving period and mandatory seatbelt use, will not realize the benefits possible with a comprehensive, fully integrated graduated licensing system.

The "image" of graduated licensing can be tarnished when issues of fairness inevitably arise. Because it targets new drivers, especially young ones, graduated licensing is often viewed as discriminatory. This author argued that it is not graduated licensing that is flawed, but the thinking that deems it to be unfair or discriminatory. However, if labels of unfair or discriminatory are not "quickly and effectively countered," they become a "convenient justification" for dismissing a promising approach to the novice driver problem. Graduated licensing suffers another image problem when it is viewed as "inappropriately punitive," seemingly labeling young drivers as problematic based largely on age, and before they have even done anything wrong.

Again a flawed perspective prevails when graduated licensing is seen as taking something away from young drivers. In effect it "simply places them under a different system, and one that is designed for their benefit." Perhaps the best way to address the fairness issue is to turn it around and speculate whether the current system of licensing seems fair--a system that results in "dramatically higher crash rates" for young drivers. In addition, "there is substantial legal and social precedent for treating children differently, especially concerning programs and policies designed for their benefit."

Overall, the public views graduated licensing positively, but the two populations it most directly affects--parents and young drivers--deserve particular focus. Parents generally support a graduated licensing system with substantial supervised driving and various restrictions. Teenage drivers are understandably less enthusiastic about graduated licensing, but evidence suggests they do understand its logic and benefits, and they do not view it as patently unfair. Both young drivers and their parents have objected to night-driving restrictions for young drivers who work, but, as discussed earlier, exemptions can be made for nighttime driving for both work and school. If only nighttime recreational driving is restricted, all concerned are less likely to object, and the benefits of graduated licensing are likely to remain intact.

Finally, a comprehensive graduated licensing system will undoubtedly make the licensing process more complex, and such a system requires the cooperation of state licensing agencies. However, advances in technology continue to simplify and streamline the whole licensing process, such that increases in personnel may not be necessary to incorporate graduated licensing into the existing licensing agency framework.

For details of a comprehensive graduated licensing law that will take effect in North Carolina in December of 1997, see "North Carolina's Graduated Licensing Law Considered a Good Model" in the August Auto and Road User Journal.

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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