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Driving Privileges and Safe Driving Practices for Young Drivers

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Sometimes when youth use poor judgment and make poor choices, these experiences can provide valuable learning experiences. Unfortunately, poor judgment regarding the use of a motor vehicle may result in costly and painful injuries, permanent disabilities, or even instant death. The statistics regarding the causes of teenage death provide a grim illustration of this truth: The leading cause of death for teens in the United States is motor vehicle crashes, and a larger percentage of teenage drivers are involved in fatal accidents than drivers in other age brackets. Therefore, every parent will want to ensure their youth learn to drive safely and always use good judgment when operating a motor vehicle. However, this is easier said than done.

The fact that teens often exhibit poor judgment is a function of both their biology and their lack of experience. As discussed in the adolescent development article, adolescents' brains are still developing well into their early 20's. In particular, a specific region of the brain known as the frontal lobes are still forming and this region of the brain functions to regulate emotions and impulsive behavior by tempering emotion and impulsivity with good judgment and rational decision-making. Because of the incomplete development of adolescent brains, youth are less likely to override their impulses and fail to use good judgment because they do not always consider the risks and consequences of their actions. Therefore, it is understandable that they are at higher risk for making dangerous mistakes and poor choices on the highway. Furthermore, a lack of emotional maturity and limited life experience causes teens to be overly optimistic, believing bad things can't happen to them. As such, they may exhibit a sense of omnipotence and invincibility.

State lawmakers have responded to this research about younger and more inexperienced drivers by creating a system of Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) which restricts young drivers' rights and privileges. While each state has developed slightly different laws, there are several commonalities to GDL laws. GDL establishes two major stages of learning for young drivers. During the first stage, the young driver is considered a learner and must always be accompanied by an adult supervising driver, such as a parent or driving instructor. During the second stage, youth are considered intermediate drivers. While they are no longer considered "learners" they are considered less skillful and less experienced. Therefore, while these young drivers are no longer required to drive with supervision, they do have significant restrictions on their driving privileges.

During the first stage of GDL, youth are required to go through formal driver's training. GDL state laws specify when this learning phase can begin, anywhere from age 14 in some states, to age 16 in others. State laws also mandate that young drivers log a minimum number of supervised practice hours ranging from 20 to 60 hours, depending on the state. Furthermore, a certain number of these mandatory practice hours must be completed at night. The GDL laws also require a minimum length of time for the learning stage before the driver can progress to the intermediate level, regardless of the number of practice hours that have been logged. While state laws differ from one another, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IHHS) recommends a set of regulations that are thought to result in optimal driver safety. The IHHS recommends the minimum age to obtain a driver's learner permit should be 16 years old, and the learning stage should last for a period of 6 months, during which time the young driver should receive at least 30-50 hours of supervised driving, including night driving.

During the second stage of GDL, youth are considered intermediate drivers and are allowed to drive independently, without supervision, as long as they have met the requirements of the learning stage and passed the required skills tests. GDL state laws specify the minimum age that this intermediate phase may begin. State laws also establish several driving restrictions during the intermediate stage. For instance, youth are not allowed to drive unsupervised during certain hours of the night. For this reason, these licenses are often referred to as "Cinderella licenses." Furthermore, drivers are prohibited from carrying a certain number of teen passengers at any given time. State laws also specify the minimum age for independent, full driving privileges. While state laws vary, the IHHS recommendations are as follows: 1) Intermediate drivers should not drive alone from 9:00pm or 10:00pm, until 5:00am, 2) Intermediate drivers should not be permitted to carry any teen passengers, or no more than one teen passenger at a time, 3) Intermediate drivers should continue to drive with these restrictions until the age of 18 years.

It can be extremely confusing for parents to keep up with their state's teen driving laws. Each state has its own laws about testing requirements and procedures for youth to qualify for their learner's permits and for intermediate licenses. Parents should carefully research their own state-specific licensing laws and procedures. The most updated state laws can be researched and compared at http://www.iihs.org/laws/pdf/us_licensing_systems.pdf. Parents can use the state laws as minimum driving requirements for their youth. However, parents always retain the right to require stricter limitations for their own children. Parents are in the best position to determine the particular skills and abilities of each child, and evaluate whether their child has learned to drive safely. Because parents ultimately shoulder the financial and legal responsibility for their children and their actions, it is in parents' best interest to establish and enforce rules that encourage their youth to make wise driving decisions.