Graduated Driver Licensing and Learning to Drive

The concept of graduated driver licensing (GDL) was first developed at our research Center more than 20 years ago. GDL systems slowly introduce novices to driving. During the initial learner stage, teens are only allowed to drive with an experienced supervisor. To ensure teens get considerable experience, there is an extended learner stage – 12 months in North Carolina – and requirements for supervised practice. During the provisional stage, teens are allowed to drive unsupervised, but not during the most dangerous conditions: at nighttime and with multiple teenage passengers. If teens demonstrate that they are reasonably safe and responsible drivers by receiving no traffic citations, they can earn an unrestricted license.

We have shown that GDL has been highly effective in reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities among young drivers in North Carolina. Our research suggests that GDL doesn’t simply reduce driving (exposure), but also helps teens become better drivers. (Teens licensed in the post-GDL era are somewhat less likely to be involved in a crash during their first few years of driving compared to teens who were licensed prior to GDL.) One concern, however, is that GDL may encourage some teens to delay licensure. If teens wait until they are 18 to obtain a license, they miss the important safety benefits of this licensing system. We have found slight increases in fatal crashes among 18-year-olds in those states with strong GDL programs.

Once a teenager begins driving without supervision, his or her crash risk increases dramatically. Our research shows that crash rates for new drivers in North Carolina are highest during the first month after a teen obtains a license that permits unsupervised driving. Crash risk then declines sharply during the next 6 to 12 months. Even after three years of driving, however, teen crash risk remains higher than that of adult drivers. It’s not yet understood precisely what is learned during the initial months and years of driving that lowers the crash risk, although it is clear that experiential learning is taking place. We are actively exploring this critical period and investigating ways to accelerate the learning process through a variety of approaches.

Selected Bibliography

Masten, SV, Foss, RD, & Marshall SW. (2013). Graduated Driver Licensing Program Component Calibrations and Their Association with Fatal Crash Involvement. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 57:105–113.

O’Brien, NP, Foss, RD, Goodwin, AH, & Masten, SV. (2013). Supervised hours requirements in graduated driver licensing: Effectiveness and parental awareness. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 50: 330-335.

Goodwin, A, Foss, R, & O’Brien, N. (2011). The Transition to Unsupervised Driving. Washington, DC: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Foss, RD, Martell, CA, Goodwin, AH, & O’Brien, NP. (2011). Measuring Changes in Teenage Driver Crash Characteristics During the Early Months of Driving. Washington, DC: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Masten SV, Foss RD, & Marshall SW. (2011). Graduated Driver Licensing and Fatal Crashes Involving 16- to 19-Year-Old Drivers. Journal of the American Medical Association, 306(10):1098-1103.

Masten, SV & Foss, RD. (2010). Long-term effect of the North Carolina graduated driver licensing system on licensed driver crash incidence: A 5-year survival analysis. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 42:1647–1652.

Margolis, LH, Masten, SV, & Foss, RD. (2007). The effects of Graduated Driver Licensing on hospitalization rates and charges for 16-and 17-year-olds in North Carolina. Traffic Injury Prevention, 8(1):35-38.

Goodwin AH, Wells JK, Foss RD & Williams AF. (2006). Encouraging compliance with graduated driver licensing restrictions. Journal of Safety Research, 37(4):343-351.

Goodwin A & Foss R. (2004). Graduated driver licensing restrictions: Awareness, compliance and enforcement in North Carolina. Journal of Safety Research, 35(4): 367-374.

Foss RD, Feaganes JR, & Rodgman EA. (2001).  Initial effect of graduated driver licensing on 16 year-old driver crashes in North Carolina. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286(13): 1588-1592.