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U Medical School Study Shows Graduated Driver Licensing has made Only Small Dent in Reducing Young-Driver Crashes

Jan. 26, 2005 — Salt Lake City – Despite Utah’s graduated driver licensing (GDL) system, allowing a 16-year-old behind the wheel remains risky, according to a recent study by the University of Utah’s Intermountain Injury Control Research Center.

Study results, to be published next month in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, show that the overall crash rate for 16-year-old drivers in Utah decreased by 5 percent during the study period, from 1996-2001.

“The results suggest that graduated driver licensing may have contributed to a reduction in young-driver crashes, but the effects were minimal compared to other states with similar systems,” said Lisa K. Hyde, principal investigator and a researcher at the Intermountain Injury Control Research Center, a part of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Car crashes are the most common cause of injury and death among teenagers in the United States. Forty percent of all deaths of 16- to 19-year-olds in 2000 were related to motor vehicles, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute.

The Utah legislature adopted a GDL system in 1999 to lower risks for young drivers. Under the system, nighttime driving is restricted for beginners, and seat-belt use is mandatory. New drivers are required to complete 30 hours of practice with an adult driver. For the first six months of licensure, a beginner may have passengers only if there’s an adult driver in the front seat.

The U of U study was conducted to examine the effectiveness of the state’s GDL system, rated “fair” last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Using statewide crash, hospital, and driver licensure databases from 1996-2001, researchers analyzed all police-reported crashes that involved at least one 16-year-old driver.

Researchers found that during this period, there were 27,304 police-reported crashes involving 16-year-olds. Boys represented 53 percent of these drivers, and 78 percent of accidents took place in an urban location. During the same period, there were 1.5 million traffic citations issued in Utah, of which 49,457 (3.2 percent) were issued to 16-year-olds. Of these, 9,180 (18.6 percent) were related to crashes, and the majority of citations were for speeding (60.8 percent).

Comparing the statistics for January 1996-June 1999 (before implementation of graduated driver licensing system) with those of July 1999-December 2001 (after implementation), researchers found a 5 percent decrease in crashes involving 16-year-olds, or nine crashes per 1,000 licensed 16-year-old drivers per year.

Crash reduction in Utah is substantially less than reported in many other states, including Michigan (25 percent), North Carolina (23 percent), Connecticut (22 percent), California (20 percent), and Ohio (23 percent), according to the study.

The study noted some weaknesses in Utah’s system that might have reduced its effectiveness, including extremely low GDL enforcement. For a period of six years, there were only five citations for violation of licensure restrictions and only 45 seat-belt citations made among 16-year-olds. “This may be a major explanation because teenagers are more likely to violate the laws if they perceive a lack of enforcement,” said Hyde.

The study also noted that unlike in other states with similar systems, teenagers in Utah are not required to repeat the graduated driver licensing stage they violate. In addition, Utah has many exceptions. For example, nighttime driving restrictions don’t apply to teens if they are driving to work, or to a religious or school activity.

Further study was recommended to identify the most effective ways of improving current GDL policies, enforcement strategies, and teenage-driver compliance.

In addition to Hyde, the other investigators in the study are Lawrence J. Cook, M.Stat; Stacey Knight, M.Stat; and Lenora M. Olson, M.A. The study was funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.