In 2008, Connecticut transformed its teen driving laws for 16 and 17 year olds from one of the most lenient in the country to one of the toughest. We tightened and lengthened passenger restrictions, increased the hours required to get a license, moved the nighttime curfew back an hour, imposed mandatory license suspensions for offenders, closed some related loopholes in our juvenile laws, required seatbelts of all passengers of teen drivers, allowed law enforcement to confiscate a teen offender’s license and vehicle, and required parents to sit for two hours with their teens during the learner’s permit stage, to understand these laws and why they were passed.
We did not change the laws for drivers who first apply for a license after their 18th birthday. All of the above-mentioned restrictions on teen drivers disappear when the driver turns 18, even if the driver only received a license in recent months. A new driver over age 18 only needs to pass a written test, spend a few hours on the road, and pass a road test — pretty much the same minimal standard for adults that has existed for decades.
Guess what? More and more teens, in Connecticut and other states with stricter laws for 16 and 17 year olds, are waiting until their 18th birthday to get a license so they don’t have to go through the hassles of the laws that apply to 16 and 17 year olds.
The evidence on this is mostly anecdotal at this point; there are no reliable statistics yet. Yet the folks at our Department of Motor Vehicles say that the trend is evident, and of course, this makes perfect sense. I suspect that some number of teens are delaying getting a license because their parents have finally figured out how potentially dangerous teen driving is, and some have delayed because of the economy — driving instruction and operating a car are expensive — but no doubt some are waiting based only on the convenience of avoiding the teen driving laws once they turn 18.
The statewide task force that overhauled Connecticut’s laws in 2007-08 and the state legislature that adopted most of its recommendations understood this potential consequence, but focused on the task at hand, which was to respond to a string of horrific, multiple-fatality teen driver crashes. In fact, since 2008, Connecticut has seen a measurable decline in crash, injury, and fatality rates among 16 and 17 year old drivers. It is not as if the problem has simply been pushed, without change or improvement, to a higher age bracket.
If we develop better data to document that a sizeable number of teens are waiting until they are 18 to avoid the teen driving laws and then are getting into more crashes than before, or they are not exhibiting the same improvement as other population segments, the obvious matter to consider will be extending at least some of the restrictions on 16 and 17 year olds to ages 18 and maybe 19. New Jersey has restrictions of this type, though I am told that they are relatively recent and their results are not yet clear.
Regulating driving among 18 and 19 year olds is a bit more complicated than 16 and 17 year olds. Many of them are out of the house, either for school or employment. They are more likely to need a car for economic reasons, and many will complain that if they are old enough to vote, they should not be restricted in their driving.
Obviously, this is not an easy public policy question. It merits mention, however, that the brains of 18 and 19 years olds are not fully developed and do not fully appreciate risk and danger (which does not occur until age 22-25), and unless an 18 or 19 year old has been driving consistently for 3 or more years, he or she cannot be considered an experienced driver. In other words, the reasons we impose restrictions on 16 and 17 year olds are generally applicable to 18 and 19 year olds also. There is nothing magic about 18 when it comes to driving and safety. It happens to be a significant number in our legal system but it is not a dividing line for measuring driver safety.
This unintended consequence of our teen driver laws deserves more data collection and public policy attention.