Most teen driver laws, which are called “Graduated Driver Licensing” or “GDL” laws, apply to drivers under age 18. During the past ten years, most states have adopted some form of a GDL system, though state-by-state provisions vary widely. The basic theory of GDL laws, which has proven to be very effective in reducing crash rates among those teens who are subject to the restrictions, is to limit or keep new drivers away from the situations that are most likely to result in a crash and injury: driving solo when they are first licensed, driving with passengers, driving at night, and using electronic devices. GDL laws let the tether out on teen drivers in stages, prohibiting distracting and dangerous conduct until they get more experience behind the wheel than they received in Driver’s Ed. Obviously, strict provisions and enforcement by parents and police are critical to the success of these laws.
When many states, during the past decade, were adopting more or more restrictions on drivers under 18, questions on the minds of some traffic safety advocates were: what about the 18 and 19 year olds? Will imposing strict rules on those under 18 lead teens to delay their licensing until they turn 18, so they can avoid the restrictions? What will be the experience and crash rates of 18 and 19 year olds who take to the roads as licensed drivers without being eased into their driving by a GDL system?
The economic recession that started in 2007 may have deferred or confused the answers to these questions. One certain consequence of the past five years has been that fewer teens have gotten their licenses at age 16 and 17, simply because the cost of driving increased and jobs for teens (both part-time and summer), which provide money for driving, became more scarce. Also, the teen population peaked around 2008-09 and then began declining, further obscuring our vision as to the possible impact of GDL laws for drivers under 18 on the 18 and older driver population.
So, the question now being discussed here in Connecticut is this: in the summer of 2013, in the greater Hartford area, ten teens under age 20 died in seven crashes during a period of about ten weeks from May through August. Then last month, the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles published a report that reviewed Connecticut’s ten-year experience with GDL laws, which took effect in 2004 and then were substantially tightened in 2008. The new DMV report contains these frightening statistics: From 2008 through 2012, thirteen 16 and 17 year old drivers died in Connecticut, but among 18 and 19 year old drivers, 38 died. Thus, among a slightly larger population, the fatalities were almost triple.
Was this an anomaly, or was it a wakeup call that with the economy improving, and five years of strict GDL laws for 16 and 17 year olds in place, our state has created a population of drivers aged 18 and 19 who are now at much higher risk by being licensed without the benefit of a GDL system?
As with many aspects of safe driving, studies are needed to verify the problem’s existence and its severity. But the question has been squarely posed, and during the summer of 2014, we will all need to watch closely for whether the experience of 2013 repeats itself.
If it turns out the we have kicked the can up the road by imposing GDL restrictions on 16 and 17 year olds, what to do in response is not clear, because imposing restrictions on drivers 18 and older presents a decidedly different set of issues than for those under 18 (which is of course one reason why the GDL line is 18 in so many states). Those age 18 and older are often out of the house and out from under their parents’ supervision. Some are economically independent. Many need to drive to further their education. And oh yes, by the way, they can vote.