License to Wait

If you were anything like me as a teenager, you’ll likely be as surprised as I was by the findings of our latest study, just released today. When I was 16, getting my driver’s license was my top priority, and I still remember thinking that a winter storm that postponed my road test by six weeks was absolutely devastating. But a new AAA Foundation survey of 18- 20-year-olds has found that less than half (just 44%) of American teens get their license within a year of their home state’s age of eligibility, and barely half (54%) get it by the time they turn 18!

The study offers evidence supporting a general perception that teens have been voluntarily delaying licensure in recent years; it also examines what some of the reasons for this delay might be. With graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems now placing some combination of driving restrictions (such as passenger limits, late-night prohibitions, etc.) on teens in all states, a big question was whether young drivers simply wanted to wait to get their license until these provisions were lifted (generally age 18, except in New Jersey). In other words, are the three tiers of GDL (learner’s permit, restricted license, full licensure) so undesirable that teens are willing to avoid it?

It turns out that the reasons for delayed licensure generally pertain more to economic considerations, busy schedules, and simple lack of interest. In fact, the biggest reasons cited for not getting a license were not having a car (44%), an ability to get around without driving (39%), cost of gas and cost overall (36% each), and “just didn’t get around to it” (35%). Fewer than one in four cited reasons related to GDL.

Even if GDL isn’t the reason for the delay, however, it is troubling that more than a third (at least 36%) of novice drivers today get licensed outside of the protective GDL system because of the delay. A recent Foundation literature review highlighted the lifesaving achievements of graduated licensing, which has been credited with reductions of 20-40 percent in 16-year-old driver crashes, and a 6-19 percent drop in crashes of 17-year-old drivers. Yet with the three-tiered system generally “expiring” once a teen turns 18, license delay for any reason can result in a significant number of novices missing out on this highly effective system.

More research is clearly needed to investigate the effects that GDL might have on older novice driver (ages 18-20, e.g.) safety, and to examine how the age at which a teen gets licensed impacts crash rates. To this end, we’ve initiated a project to study the crash rates of teens by age at licensure in three states: North Carolina and California, which do not have comprehensive GDL for older novices, and New Jersey, which does. You can read more about this project here.

Summer is the deadliest season for teens on the road, so this is a particularly poignant time to consider the results of this study. To learn more about it, please visit the project page. And, as always, please continue to drive safely all summer long.