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AAA: Driving Experience Matters More Than Age For Teen Drivers

teen driver with keys

When it comes to the safety of young adult drivers, experience behind the wheel may matter more than the age at when one receives a driver license, according to two new studies by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. These results suggest that states could reduce road crashes, fatalities and injuries by extending graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws to novice drivers beyond age 17. AAA is highlighting this research to raise awareness of teen driver crashes during National Teen Driver Safety Week, Oct. 19-25.


Graduated driver licensing laws are designed to help new drivers gain practical experience in a relatively safe environment by initially restricting their exposure to riskier situations, such as driving at night or with young passengers. The law then gradually phases in more privileges as new drivers gain more experience.


“Turning 18 does not instantly make someone a safer driver,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “This new research clearly demonstrates how important experience is to safe driving and suggests that graduated driver licensing laws may be beneficial for people that begin driving at an older age.”


Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers.  In California, 11,120 teen drivers were killed and injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2012.  Parents and teens can learn more about teen driver issues and California GDL requirements by visiting AAA’s web site.


“The Graduated Driver Licensing law has significantly reduced crashes, injuries and deaths for teen drivers on California roads, but the problem we’ve seen here is that some teens wait until turning 18 to apply for a driver’s license – bypassing GDL and losing out on its safety protections – such as nighttime driving restrictions and passenger limitations – and they also lose out on the required behind-the-wheel experience,“ said Automobile Club of Southern California’s Senior Traffic Safety Researcher Steve Bloch, Ph.D. “Easing into driving and the 50 hours of supervised driving practice would help in reducing their crashes when they turn 18.”


“In California, GDL had major effects on teen crashes over the law’s first 13 years,” added Bloch. An Auto Club analysis of 1998-2011 data showed that the crash rate per licensed driver of 16-year-olds dropped 51 percent, while that of 17-year-olds dropped 48 percent. “The crash rate for 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds also dropped, by about 30 percent, just not as quickly as the younger age groups with GDL restrictions,” added Bloch.


The findings are based on two AAA studies that examined crash rates of new drivers. The first study looked at crash rates in California and North Carolina, two states that allow driving at age 16 and have no GDL requirements for new drivers ages 18 or older. The research revealed an important exception: new drivers licensed at age 18 were more likely to be involved in a crash resulting in injuries during their first year of solo driving than new drivers licensed at any other age.


The second study examined crash rates in New Jersey, which has a minimum age of 17 for unsupervised driving and is the only state in the country to have a comprehensive GDL program for all new drivers up to age 21. In New Jersey, while crash rates of new drivers licensed at different ages largely converged after six months of solo driving experience, older beginners had lower crash rates overall and lower rates of injury crashes than younger beginners.


Although the data did not allow researchers to directly investigate whether these differences were caused by GDL provisions, collectively, the results of the two studies suggest that applying GDL to all new drivers, or at least to some new drivers older than 17, might have a protective effect and improve safety.


Graduated driver licensing programs have reduced 16- and 17-year-old driver crashes, but generally do not apply to new drivers ages 18 and older. Prior AAA Foundation research found that an estimated 36 percent of new drivers miss out on the protections of GDL  by delaying licensure until age 18 or older. 


AAA is not calling for states to extend GDL provisions just yet, but does believe the research results are very promising in pinpointing a way to keep these drivers safe. The AAA Foundation will continue evaluating this topic in the coming year to try to firmly establish whether policy options such as not allowing teens to “age out of GDL” by turning 18 or covering all teen drivers are effective traffic safety approaches, according to Bloch.


In the U.S., only New Jersey applies full GDL to new drivers ages 18 and older, said Bloch. Other countries such as Canada and New Zealand apply GDL provisions to a wider age range, covering all novice drivers or at least up to age 25 in most jurisdictions, he added.




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The Automobile Club of Southern California is a member club affiliated with the American Automobile Association (AAA) national federation and serves members in the following California counties: Inyo, Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura.