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Waiting Until Age 18 to Get Driver’s License Doesn’t Mean Fewer Accidents

By Aaron Crowe

 

Graduated driver licensing, or GDL, is meant to protect young, beginner drivers while they gain experience driving a car. The state programs typically don’t allow them to drive late at night, or with other teens in the car, and the young drivers don’t earn their licenses until after one or two years in the program.

Two studies from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, however, found that waiting until you’re 18 to drive instead of 16 doesn’t mean you’re less likely to be in an accident.

Researchers found that novice drivers who got their license at 18 crashed less than 16-year-old drivers in the first few months and years after getting a license. However, novice drivers who were licensed at 18 were more likely than any other age group to be in an injury crash during their first year of solo driving.

The study found that 18-year-olds could also benefit from GDL restrictions.

One mom’s experience

That’s no surprise to SuAnn Pliner, the mother of eight children, two who are driving teenagers.

“Driving is a big responsibility, and kids look at it like it can be fun,” says Pliner, who works in customer support at Prong and lives in New York City, where adults can have just as much difficulty driving as teens do learning to drive.

Her 17-year-old daughter has a driver’s license and her son, 16, has a learner’s permit. New York state has a GDL program, prohibiting young drivers with learner’s permits from driving on bridges or tunnels under the Triborough Bridge, on certain parkways in Westchester County, and without a proper supervising driver, among other restrictions.

Once they’ve had a permit for six months, they can take a test to get a junior driver’s license, which allows them to have one passenger under age 21, though more immediate family members are allowed. The state also requires drivers who want to get their senior driver’s license at age 17 instead of 18 to take a driver education course and complete 50 hours of supervised driving, 15 of which must be after sunset.

Pliner’s children live within those rules, and others that she sets, especially for her 16-year-old son.

“It’s OK with me for him to get it,” she says of a license at 17, “if I feel he’s responsible.”

That includes rules as a passenger, too, such as not be allowed to get in a car with someone under 21 who’s driving. He can only drive his siblings for three or four months, and he’ll get more leeway when he either turns 18 or has been driving for six months, she says.

The AAA research that 18-year-olds who are new to driving are getting in more accidents in their first year of driving than younger drivers who have driven for a few years isn’t surprising to Pliner. Younger kids are being supervised by their parents and may have their siblings report their driving habits to their parents, while drivers at age 18 are more independent and may not have input from their parents, she says.

Avoiding GDL

More teens are waiting to drive — more so because they can’t afford a car than because they’re waiting until age 18 when they can avoid their state GDL requirements, according to AAA.

That puts more drivers on the road without the benefits of GDL programs. The AAA study didn’t recommend that all states extend GDL provisions to ages 18-21, but pointed out that such restrictions can keep older novice drivers safe.

GDL was shown to be effective for young drivers. In North Carolina, the three-year crash rate for 16-year-olds with GDL program licenses was 11 percent lower than for those licensed without it.

Experience also helped more than age, with total crashes highest for ages 16-21 during the first six months of having a license. Crash rates fell by 30 percent during the next 36 months as drivers gained experience.

New Jersey extends GDL

GDL restrictions are extended to all novice drivers until age 21 in New Jersey, the only state to extend the restrictions. Older novice drivers have fewer accidents and lower rates of injuries than younger ones in the state, with first-month crash rates 20 percent lower for new drivers who are 18, compared to 17-year-olds.

Kevin Foley, an insurance broker in New Jersey who has a 17-year-old daughter, says she got her driver’s permit at age 16 and followed the GDL restriction of not being an unsupervised driver until she was 17. She barely has time to drive anyway, Foley says.

“She’s so busy getting her applications out for college, she doesn’t have time to drive anywhere,” he says.

A red, reflective one-inch square decal alerting anyone that she’s a minor driver must be applied to her license plate when she’s driving. She can’t drive from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. She’s a straight-A student who is very responsible, Foley says, and he doesn’t worry as much about her driving habits.

Foley’s 15-year-old son is who he’s more worried about as a driver. “He thinks he’s immortal. She doesn’t,” their dad says.

In his work in the insurance industry, Foley says he’s seen accidents from younger drivers who make poor, aggressive decisions, such as racing a yellow light. His young son, he knows, is in that demographic and has the potential to make bad decisions.

“I don’t want him to get a permit until he’s 21,” says Foley, only half joking.

 

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.