Graduated Licensing in the United States, or "It's A Young Person's Problem, So Why Should We Care?"

1. The Facts

In the United States, the states of Massachusetts, California, Oregon, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Illinois, Arkansas, Ohio, Michigan and the District of Columbia (and possibly others), have adopted graduated licensing programs, with varying degrees of enforcement, effectiveness, and severity. Massachusetts has one of the stricter programs, which is outlined here as an example.

Age 16: Motorist recieves learner's permit, after taking a multiple-choice test. They are allowed to drive under any conditions, provided that in the passenger seat is a driver who is over 21 and has held a Massachusetts license for at least one year. During this period, they must accrue twelve hours of behind-the-wheel experience, as well as twelve hours of "passenger time"; this refers to time spent seated next to an adult driver and studying the procedure.

Age 16 1/2: Motorist can apply for their Junior Operator's License (JOL), by taking a road test. They must have completed a Driver's Ed course by this point. Assuming they pass, they recieve the JOL with a passenger restriction tacked on to it. The passenger restriction means that the motorist may not drive with any other person except an immediate family member or a licensed, over-21 driver. The passenger restriction lasts for six months, and is renewed in case of accidents, or if a violation is found of this or any other driving law.

Age 17 (actually, six months after road test): Motorist may now drive with passengers, assuming that they have been accident-free for six months. They are still under a driving time restriction, meaning that they cannot drive between the hours of midnight and 5 AM unless accompanied by a licensed adult.

Age 18: Motorist is now eligible for a full license, allowing them to drive however they want. Individuals who chose not to take a Driver's Ed course are now eligible to apply for their first license, as well.

2. The Case

Premise: Graduated licensing systems show insubstantial results and are restrictive to responsible teen drivers.

It's not tried-and-true. The statistical results used to back up graduated licensing are generally flimsy; for example, California reported a 5% decrease in the number of teen crashes. While this is pretty meager to begin with, such a statistic would probably account for the number of teenagers who just stayed home instead of going out with their friends. Oregon supports its system by saying that male crashes have decreased during the period in which graduated licensing has been implemented, a statistic with only passing relevance to the issue at hand. The number of young motorists disenfranchised by the system reduces supportive statistics to less than the standard deviation of crash rates.

It's not fair treatment. Graduated licensing systems almost invariably (note that this is not true in some Canadian provinces) apply exclusively to teen drivers. "One in four teenagers will get in a crash in their first year of driving!" is a popular battle cry of the movements supporting graduated licensing. Similarly, one in four people will be in an accident relating to "driving distractions" such as cellphones, radios, etc. (cite; naturally, it's easier to strike out at teens than powerful industries like cellphones. Do you know why? Teenagers can't vote. This is at the heart of the issue. Graduated licensing is a system created for adults and imposed on teenagers. In every state with a graduated licensing program, adults are not affected. As soon as one turns eighteen and recieves the right to vote, the barriers to driving are miraculously lifted. I doubt there's a single voter in the nation who would bother to oppose graduated licensing, since it doesn't affect them and seems like it ought to be safe for their kids.

A lot of teenagers drive safely. One of the root causes of the graduated licensing movement is the general sentiment in America that our teenagers are out all night at wild parties, drinking and carousing until 3 AM, at which point they hop in their cars and drive home drunk. As it happens, the majority of teenage drivers like to do things like go see a movie with their friends, and then go home. Of course, they can't. Teenagers who aren't old enough to drive just get left behind for those six months, since nobody can transport them. (I happen to circumvent this by living on the Connecticut state line; whenever I want to drive somebody, I can do it legally in CT; that's also where the movie theaters are.) Responsible teenage drivers make up the majority.

It's bad for the environment, too. This may be petty, but forcing large groups of teenagers to drive everywhere in separate cars is not healthy for the environment in the least. Think of the greenhouse effect!

3. The Concessions Some graduated licensing laws aren't so bad. For example, in New Hampshire, graduated licensing consists of a nighttime driving restriction and harsher penalties when passengers don't wear seatbelts. To them I say: fine. It's clearly still not perfect, and it's still targeting the helpless; but a nighttime driving restriction won't kill anybody, and promoting teen seatbelt use is a good idea no matter how you look at it. Kudos to New Hampshire.

4. The Solution

Stronger Driver's Ed. Driver's Education programs are no longer offered in most public high schools, having been privatized to decrease education budgets. However, private driving schools in most areas are poorly-run and generally a bit corrupt. In Massachusetts, driving schools are a local monopoly -- within twenty miles of my home, only three driving schools exist, all owned by the same company. The Auto School sponsors police officers whom they like by hand-picking which of them will conduct road tests on their students. The tests are conducted on Saturday, so whatever cop oversees them is paid time-and-a-half for an easy job. If the cop doesn't pass a large majority of the students, the Auto School doesn't hire him again. This is their standard, declared way of doing business. (Actual instructor quote: "I wouldn't say we bribe the cops. Let's just say that they're more likely to pass our students if they're getting a little extra money.")

Stronger road tests. On the same token, a standard driving school road test lasts three minutes; a student drives two blocks, executes a three-point turn, and drives back. Almost none fail. The reason that new drivers get in accidents in the first place is that they recieve their license without actually being qualified to drive. Taking a road test without your driving school's assistance is almost not an option; when I tried, I found that I would have to wait three months for an appointment, and take it sixty miles away. Conversely, a driving school has pre-booked slots almost every day of the week for its students; usually your test will be within a day or two of your request. A stricter system of testing and training would reduce crashes by actually giving drivers the skills that they need, rather than penalizing them based on age.

Revised from my fourth writeup on the site, which was justly nuked.