HD14 - The Feasibility and Effectiveness of Provisional and Graduated Licensing Strategies as Alternatives to Full Licensing for Young Drivers in Virginia

Executive Summary:
Motor vehicle administrators have long recognized that young drivers, especially 16- and 17-year oIds, are at a very high risk of crash involvement during their first few years of driving. Their inexperience with the driving task and general immaturity can combine to create situations where they do not recognize the potential for a crash and cannot prevent the crash from occurring. The Virginia General Assembly has been addressing the young driver problem for several years, most notably by passing House Bill 2320, a measure that reduced the age for obtaining a learner's permit from 15 years 8 months to 15 years. By obtaining a learner's permit earlier, young drivers will have an increased opportunity to practice driving prior to full licensure. In the same session, the General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution No. 571, which requested that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) study the possibility of reducing young driver crash risk by establishing a provisional or graduated licensing system in Virginia. The DMV requested that the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC) conduct this study.

Over the past 25 years, the young driver problem has been extremely well documented. Nationally, drivers 16 to 19 years old are vastly overrepresented in traffic crashes and have the highest fatality rate per licensed driver. As seen in Figure ES-I, the same holds true for Virginia. Although this group is a serious threat to traffic safety, it is the 16-year-old driver who poses the greatest threat, followed at a distance by 17-year-old drivers. As seen in Figure ES-2, 16-year old drivers also pose a serious threat to their teenage passengers. Nationally, more teenage passengers were killed in vehicles driven by 16-year olds than by any other age group, and more 16-year-old passengers were killed in vehicles driven by 16-year olds than any other age group.

Thus, although the 16- to 19-year-old age group should be targeted for special attention, it is the 16-year-old driver group that is at highest risk. A young driver licensing system should make the first year of licensure as safe as possible by ensuring that young drivers gain experience under safe conditions or by using the license itself as an incentive for conviction- and crash-free driving.

Two types of young driver licensing systems are used in other states and countries: graduated licensing and provisional licensing. Under graduated licensing, young drivers are initially granted partial driving privileges so that they may gain driving experience under conditions of reduced risk. As they gain experience and mature, they are awarded broader privileges until they finally receive a full license. Provisional licensing systems award young drivers a full license but invoke special provisions for early suspension or remediation if they fail to operate their vehicle safely. Thus, with a graduated license program, young drivers earn broader driving privileges as they gain experience, and with a provisional license program, they receive full privileges but can lose their license more easily than adults. Most states with young driver licensing systems have incorporated aspects of both provisional and graduated licensing into their programs.


This study began with a detailed investigation of the young driver problem. This was followed by a review of the literature on young driver licensing to determine what aspects of graduated and provisional licensing programs were effective in reducing crashes and convictions. Next, a review of state licensing statutes and a survey concerning the young driver licensing systems in other states were conducted. This survey included questions on the administrative costs and human resource requirements of these programs and questions on their content and how they were implemented. Throughout the investigation, the authors were assisted by an advisory group whose members represented the sections of the DMV that deal with driver licensing.

Opportunities for Changing Virginia's Young Driver Licensing System

The results of the study were separated into two major categories: opportunities for improving the licensing procedures for first-year, 16-year-old drivers, and opportunities for improving the effectiveness of the learner's permit period, when young drivers are usually 15 years old.

Driver Licensing Process

Thirty-six states, including Virginia, have components of a young driver licensing program. Although a few components are common to several states, each state's program is unique.

Since most young driver licensing cases are not decided in a court of record, case law relevant to provisional or graduated licensing is scant. Constitutional challenges of provisional licensing on the grounds that it unduly discriminates against minors have failed. Thus, no legal impediments to establishing a young driver licensing program in Virginia are anticipated.

There are six major opportunities for improving young driver licensing in Virginia:

1. Institute nighttime driving restrictions for young drivers. On the national level, young drivers tend to have more fatal crashes at night than do other age groups. These crashes more often involve alcohol than do adult crashes, and they tend to be more serious. In Virginia, a high proportion of fatal crashes involving young drivers tend to occur at night, especially in the early evening hours (see FigureES-3). A nighttime driving restriction is a form of graduated licensing that limits driving for specific age groups to daytime and early evening. These restrictions are designed to allow teenage drivers to develop the skills necessary for safe driving under relatively low-risk conditions. Eleven states have implemented nighttime driving restrictions through a statute, and several hundred cities and towns have implemented them though a local ordinance, sometimes as a part of a general curfew for young persons. In most states with restrictions, young persons, usually 16- and 17-year olds, are prohibited from driving between midnight and 5 A.M. unless they have received a waiver of the restrictions due to employment, family responsibility, or educational need. In other states, nighttime driving restrictions for 16-year-old drivers begin as early as 1 hour after sunset. These restrictions have been effective in reducing crashes and convictions for the young drivers targeted by the program and in reducing the number of teenage passenger fatalities.

2. Institute a provisional licensing program with accelerated penalties. A provisional licensing program targets those drivers who have had crashes and convictions during their probationary period and thus have shown themselves to be prone to recklessness or inattention. Adult penalties are invoked but at lower point or conviction levels. Nine states have such programs. Some states require that during the first year of driving, a young person must remain crash and conviction free to retain a full license. Other states set a limit that is somewhat more lenient. Licensing programs of this type have been shown to reduce crashes and convictions among young persons. The experience of states operating such programs tends to indicate that one can be implemented without an excessive initial outlay, or at least should pay for itself through fines and fees, if additional trips to the DMV are not required and the suspension and appeals process is standardized.

3. Provide for a crash- and conviction-free period before granting full licensure. Requiring that young drivers drive for a specified period of time without being convicted of a moving violation or involved in a crash for which they are at fault has been effective in reducing teenage crashes and convictions, especially when young drivers must be crash or conviction free for a minimum period before they may progress to the next stage of licensure. The purpose, as with a provisional licensing system in general, is to provide an additional incentive for responsible driving. Requiring that a young driver remain conviction and crash free before licensure requires no additional outlays to implement once a provisional or graduated licensing plan has been put into place.

4. Institute passenger restrictions for young drivers. Recent studies have highlighted the fact that 16-year olds riding with 16-year-old drivers have the highest fatality rate of any group of drivers or passengers. One way to deal with this problem is to limit the number and ages of passengers that can be carried by young drivers unless they are accompanied by an adult. Although no state has implemented a passenger restriction as a part of its driver's license, two states (Delaware and Utah) currently have passenger restrictions as one of the learner's permit provisions. Further, New Zealand has implemented passenger restrictions for young licensees, and studies have shown their program to be effective in reducing teenage crashes and fatalities. Although it is difficult to estimate the costs of implementing passenger restrictions, analogies drawn from experience with nighttime driving restrictions, which impose similar administrative and enforcement burdens, indicate that they could be implemented at little or no additional cost to the Commonwealth.

5. Institute driver improvement programs for young drivers. As an alternative or in addition to punitive sanctions, many states have driver improvement programs designed to provide drivers the knowledge they need to drive safely and an increased awareness of their driving problems. Nine states have driver improvement options tailored to young drivers. The details of the programs differ substantially, making it difficult to generalize regarding the potential costs or effectiveness of any particular program. In general, however, such programs have been effective in reducing crashes and citations within the affected group. Although several of these programs have been structured such that they either generate very little cost or pay for themselves, any retraining program implemented would probably require additional staffing, at least initially.

6. Mandate primary enforcement for safety belt use for young drivers. It is well documented that teenagers have a lower incidence of safety belt use than do adults. This makes them especially vulnerable to injury and mortality in crashes. Implementing primary enforcement of safety belt laws for young drivers should provide an additional incentive for those who are most likely to be involved in crashes to wear safety belts, a practice that unquestionably saves lives. However, no cost data or effectiveness evaluations were available for this alternative.

7. Consider increasing the licensure age. Studies have shown that increasing the age of licensure reduces crashes and convictions among underage young drivers. New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, and several counties in New York have raised their driving age. Although this may not be a popular option among parents and 16-year olds, it does have the potential to reduce crashes in the at-risk age group.

Learner's Permit Process

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia require that young drivers obtain a learner's permit before applying for a full license. Compared to Virginia, other states usually require that they hold the permit for a specified period and they impose more stringent requirements for the accompanying driver. Other states usually require that the accompanying driver be older than is required in Virginia and that he or she have a specified number of years of driving experience.

There are two major opportunities for improving Virginia's learner's permit process.

1. Create a minimum period for which the learner's permit must be held. Currently in Virginia, there is no requirement that the learner's permit be held for any length of time. Eleven other states have set a mandatory minimum holding period. Five require that the permit be held for 30 days, one for 60 days, and three for 90 days. The holding period in the other two states is 14 and 15 days, respectively. As yet, no research has been conducted that would identify the optimal holding period for the learner's permit. Requiring young drivers to hold the permit for a specified number of days or months could increase the probability that they receive supervised practice prior to being given the responsibility for operating a vehicle on their own.

2. Increase the qualifications required of the accompanying driver. The driver accompanying an individual driving with a learner's permit is intended to serve as both instructor and role model. Currently, Virginia requires only that the accompanying driver be over the age of 18 and a licensed driver. This means that a supervising driver could in reality be a peer with little more experience than the individual being taught. Twenty-two of the 30 states with learner's permit programs have requirements for the accompanying driver that are more stringent than those in Virginia. All 22 require that the driver be older than is required in Virginia, have at least some driving experience, or be related to the young driver. Virginia could increase the probability that accompanying drivers are better able to perform their function by requiring that they be substantially older than the permit holder and have some meaningful driving experience.