Security and Safety

Majority of U.S. teens delay getting driver's license, report says

Posted on August 5, 2013

Image courtesy AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
Image courtesy AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
The majority of American teens today delay getting a driver's license, according to new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Less than one-half (44%) of teens obtain a driver's license within 12 months of the minimum age for licensing in their state and just over half (54%) are licensed before their 18th birthday, causing concern among safety experts that young adult drivers are missing the benefits intended by graduated drivers licensing (GDL).

These findings mark a significant drop from two decades ago when data showed more than two-thirds of teens were licensed by the time they turned 18.

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"With one in three teens waiting to get their license until they turn 18, there's a segment of this generation missing  opportunities to learn under the safeguards that GDL provides," said Peter Kissinger, president/CEO, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "For most, it's about not having a car or having alternatives for getting around that are the top reasons cited for delaying what has traditionally been considered to be a rite of passage."

Contrary to some expectations, survey results suggest that few teens wait until 18 simply to avoid graduated driver licensing. Instead, a number of other reasons for delaying licensure were cited, including:

    44% – Did not have a car
    39% – Could get around without driving
    36% – Gas was too expensive
    36% – Driving was too expensive
    35% – "Just didn't get around to it"

Low-income and minority teens are the least likely to obtain a driver's license before age 18. Only 25% of teens living in households with incomes less than $20,000 obtained their license before they turned 18, while 79% of teens were licensed by their 18th birthday in households with incomes of $100,000 or more. The findings for licensure by age 18 differed significantly by race and ethnicity, with 67% for non-Hispanic white teens, 37% for non-Hispanic black teens and 29% for Hispanic teens.

"For a range of reasons, young adults increasingly are getting licensed without the benefit of parental supervision, extensive practice and gaining experience under less risky conditions that are the hallmark of a safety-focused licensing system," said AAA's Director, state relations, and teen driver issue expert, Justin McNaull. "Researchers and policymakers should examine whether existing state GDL systems — nearly all of which end once a teen turns 18 — can be modified to improve safety for these young adult novice drivers."

AAA has worked for nearly two decades to recommend that all states adopt and enforce a comprehensive three-stage (learner's permit, intermediate/probationary license, full/unrestricted license) graduated driver licensing (GDL) system for novice teen drivers. These programs require minimum holding periods and practice requirements for teens with learner's permits, followed by restricted licenses that limit driving at night or with peer passengers. These requirements help novice drivers safely gain the skills and experience needed to become safe adult drivers.

Previous AAA Foundation research found that states with comprehensive GDL systems have experienced a 38% decrease in fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds and a 40% reduction in injury crashes.

The researchers surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,039 respondents ages 18 to 20. The full research report and survey results can be found on the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety website.

Established by AAA in 1947, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit, publicly-supported charitable educational and research organization.

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