Teen Driver Safety:

Additional Research Could Help States Strengthen Graduated Driver Licensing Systems

GAO-10-544: Published: May 27, 2010. Publicly Released: May 27, 2010.

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Susan A. Fleming
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Teen drivers ages 16 to 20 have the highest fatality rate of any age group in the United States. As a result, states have increasingly adopted laws to limit teen driving exposure, such as Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) systems, which consist of three stages: a learner's permit allowing driving only under supervision; intermediate licensure allowing unsupervised driving with restrictions; and full licensure. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), within the Department of Transportation (DOT), supports state teen driver safety programs by researching teen driver safety issues, working to limit teens' access to alcohol, promoting seat belt use, and encouraging states to implement GDL systems. This requested report identifies (1) key GDL system requirements and the extent to which state programs include these requirements, and (2) challenges states face to improve teen driver safety and how states and NHTSA have addressed the challenges. GAO examined state GDL systems, visited six states, and interviewed federal and state traffic safety officials and other experts.

Key requirements of a GDL system, according to traffic safety experts GAO interviewed, include a minimum entry age, a learner's permit phase that includes supervised driving, and restrictions on nighttime driving and driving with teen passengers. Additional key requirements sometimes addressed as part of a GDL system include seat belt use, bans on using electronic devices such as using cell phones while driving, driver education, and parental involvement. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have a three-stage GDL system and most state systems include key requirements. For example, all states, including the District of Columbia, have a minimum entry age and learner's permit stage, 49 have nighttime driving restrictions, and 43 have passenger restrictions. However, specific provisions vary. For example, nighttime driving restrictions vary from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in certain states to 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. in others. While research shows that GDL systems are associated with improved teen driver safety, additional research on specific requirements, such as minimum entry age, the learner's permit phase, nighttime driving and passenger restrictions, bans on electronic devices, drivers' education, and parental involvement could help state officials determine optimum provisions to strengthen their GDL systems. For example, limited research is available to indicate optimal times to limit teen driving at night or the effect of electronic device bans on teen drivers. In addition to limited research, officials identified several challenges to improving state teen driver safety programs, such as difficulty in enacting and enforcing teen driver safety laws, limited resources to implement a teen driver safety program, limited access to standardized driver education, and difficulties involving parents as their teens learn to drive, among others. For example, enacting teen driver laws can be challenging because some groups, including legislators, believe these laws infringe on an individual's personal freedom. Officials have identified a number of strategies to address these challenges. For example, several states created a commission or task force to rally public support for new teen driver laws. Strategies to address other challenges included implementing enforcement checkpoints targeting teen drivers, seeking funding from private companies, developing driver education standards, and encouraging parent participation in teen driver programs. NHTSA also helps states address these challenges in several ways, including providing information on its Web site, publishing an annual guidebook on effective traffic safety countermeasures for major highway safety problem areas, including young drivers, and regular contact with state officials.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT officials indicated that they would undertake a meta-analysis of available research and data that should enable them to provide better guidance that more explicitly enumerates the potential benefits of particular GDL provisions. While several such meta-analyses have been conducted in the past, many States have recently revised and improved their GDL laws: twenty States have imposed new or revised GDL restrictions since 2006 pertaining to the issues listed by GAO as in need of further research. These changes should allow new research to clarify the benefits of these provisions. That study is now complete and we have a draft report in the process of agency clearance. DOT officals said they would expect it will be publicly released in the fall, certainly no later than the end of the year. The meta-analysis reviewed GDL research since 2001 that evaluated the effectiveness of GDL systems overall and GDL components individually. There were 14 studies included in the final sample that met the selection criteria and were included in the study. In addition, NHTSA has partnered with the National Safety Council and the Allstate Insurance Foundation to sponsor an effort to identify best practices for GDL programs, driver education and driver license testing. This involved a literature review to identify evidence based practices, an environmental scan to identify innovative programs not found by the literature review, the drafting of a framework for GDL programs that better integrates driver education and driver license testing, an international expert panel discussion of the draft framework and related issues associated with integrating GDL programs with driver education and driver license testing. It is anticipated that a report will be available on this effort by the end of 2014.

    Recommendation: To assist states in understanding and implementing key requirements of a teen driver safety program and to help identify the optimum provisions of GDL systems, NHTSA should conduct additional research on specific GDL provisions, including minimum entry age, nighttime and passenger restrictions, the effect of bans on electronic devices, driver education, and parental involvement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


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