the-gdl-era tall

June 2012

Hundreds of lives have been saved—but many are still at risk.

The statistics don't lie: Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL)—a program that gradually phases in driving privileges for new teen drivers as they gain experience behind the wheel—saves lives. In 1995, one year before Florida enacted the first GDL law, 1,015 deaths occurred nationwide among 16- to 17-year-old drivers. In the years that followed, as one state after another passed and revised GDL laws of their own, driving fatalities among this age group fell to a historic low of 408 in 2010—a 60 percent reduction.

"GDL is working, and it's working well," says J. Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "It's probably the most effective countermeasure we in the traffic safety community have ever put in place for teens."

Although every state now has a GDL program, the requirements and restrictions vary from one to the next. "Many are close, but there's not one state that has everything right," says Karen Morton, AAMVA Program Director of Driver Licensing and author of the 2009 AAMVA Report "Graduated Driver License Best Practices."

"When states pass laws they pass an initial version and then they go back and strengthen them," says Barbara Harsha, Executive Director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "That's what is happening now—many states are currently revisiting their GDL laws."

In fact, all but nine states have amended their original GDL laws at least once to make them more comprehensive, according to a 2011 GHSA report. Passenger restrictions, nighttime restrictions and learner period requirements have been the most prevalent additions or changes to the laws. "Many people around the country are working to tighten and close loopholes to make these laws as effective as possible," says Kissinger. As the laws continue to improve, one problem remains persistent.

The Challenge of Enforcement

For all the legislative improvements to GDL laws across the country, their enforcement remains a significant challenge. "The fact of the matter is that it's always difficult to tell how old a teen driver is," says Harsha. Because of this, GDL laws are secondary laws. This means that a teen driver suspected to be in violation of GDL law cannot be stopped unless he or she commits a primary violation, such as speeding or not wearing a seatbelt.

Of the five general risk factors affecting teen driving—inexperience, teen passengers, nighttime driving, seat belt use, and distractions—the first three are addressed by components of GDL laws; for the latter two, many states have enacted primary laws for the mandatory use of seat belts, as well as the prohibition of cell phone use and/or texting while driving. The enforcement of these primary laws will undoubtedly snare a number of GDL-restricted drivers, but there are many in the community who would agree with Morton, "GDL violations really need to be primary violations."

Another solution currently being explored by the state of New Jersey is to require that a special decal be affixed to the license plates of a novice driver. The decals are removable, so fully licensed drivers may drive the same vehicle as a novice driver by simply removing the decals from the plates. In theory, the decals would enable law enforcement to identify and stop young drivers if they are in violation of a GDL restriction. But in practice, what's to prevent a young driver from simply removing the decals before heading out on the road at night during restricted hours, or from refusing to use them in the first place, other than a $100 fine if they get caught?

"Because the enforcement of GDL laws is so difficult, parents need to become the enforcers," says Harsha, articulating a position held by many in the traffic safety community. "Everyone is in agreement," adds Morton. "The biggest target group for outreach is the parents."

What's a Parent To Do?

"There are good reasons for all of the GDL restrictions—the data shows this," says Dr. Ruth Shults, Senior Epidemiologist at the CDC Injury Center and member of the Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention Team. "Parents don't necessarily have all the tools at their fingertips to keep their teen drivers safe, so any means to inform those parents of their responsibilities, as well as the kids, is a good thing."

Because GDL laws have only been around for 15 years or less, most parents of teens today learned how to drive and received their first driver's licenses in the pre-GDL era. Educating parents and providing them with the statistical data that led to the development and implementation of GDL laws is essential. If they understand the risks faced by their teen driver, and the restrictions imposed by their state's GDL laws to help minimize these risks, they will act in accordance and do what they can to keep their teens safe.

There are excellent resources and extensive toolkits available online [see Resources, page 22] for parents of teen drivers; most contain a voluntary contract or an agreement that parents can use to negotiate with their teens to establish clear rules and what the consequences are for breaking those rules. "The young driver tends to think the rules are a bit looser than the parent does, so the contract removes the possibility of misunderstanding what the rules are," says Dr. Shults.

"One thing we do see slowly getting some legs is the idea of combining GDL and driver education more closely," says Dr. Shults. "Some states are encouraging parents to come in for an orientation during their child's driver education class time. Connecticut is now requiring that."

Spotlight on Connecticut

In 2007, the Connecticut Governor's Task Force on Teen Safe Driving was created. Made up of various safety advocates and led by the State Traffic Commissioner, an in-depth study was conducted to assess all of the risks affecting teenage drivers. Part of the study included a survey that was sent out to parents, the results of which established a baseline for how strict the public was willing to allow any teen driving law changes to be.

One of the conclusions reached by the task force was that there needed to be joint education of both the new driver and the parent in order to engage the parent and provide them with necessary info, so a mandatory two-hour parental meeting became part of driver education programs. A survey of parents who had attended this mandatory meeting showed that over 85 percent found the information to be "extraordinarily beneficial," according to William Seymour, Director of Corporate and Public Relations for the Connecticut DMV.

Connecticut also has a first-in-the-nation policy that allows police to temporarily suspend the license of a teen for up to 48 hours upon issuance of a moving violation. The vehicle is towed and the parents are called. Studies have shown that teens tend not to tell their parents about tickets, which is why this policy is in place. "It's hard to explain why the car is not in the driveway or why the police are calling," says Seymour.

Another area of success for the state is public outreach using social media. In partnership with Travelers Insurance Company, a video contest is held each year with a new theme—for 2012 the theme is "How a Community Helps to Make Teens Safe Drivers." The videos are posted to YouTube and an annual awards gala is held where the top five videos receive cash awards that are donated to the recipients' schools' teen safe driving programs. An additional award is granted to the video with the highest number of YouTube viewers.

"Social media is one of the critical ways to reach kids today," says Seymour. "To see the teams of students involved and the creativity of their videos provides anecdotal evidence that these laws are having an impact and that they're sticking."

In a recent letter addressed to Teen Safety Advocates, NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland announced the release of their latest study on driver education. The study reports that "integrating driver education more thoroughly with graduated driver licensing systems, strengthening driver testing, involving parents in the driver education process and preparing them to manage risks for their new driver, and extending the duration of young driver training may have significant safety benefits."

While Connecticut is on the right track, in the days and years ahead, GDL programs across the country will need to follow suit. Strengthening and improving these programs through hard work, advocacy groups and community members is critical to their success and to the mission of saving lives. "Every day there are new drivers," says Dr. Shults. "GDL is something we need to constantly work at to keep each new group of young drivers safe."

AAMVA's Karen Morton on GDL Resources