Licensing programs reduce deaths among youngest drivers but could do more to help older teens

September 15, 2011

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Do graduated driver’s licensing programs save lives? The answer is a resounding “Yes” for younger teen drivers (16- to 17-year-olds), according to researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, they say that research is needed to improve these programs for older teen drivers (18- to 19-year-olds).

The good news is that graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs for teen drivers do lower by 26 percent the incidence of fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers, according to a UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health study published in the Sept. 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The bad news is that the programs were associated with a 12 percent increase in fatal crashes among 18-year-olds, for whom the program’s restrictions no longer apply.

Dr. Steve Marshall

Dr. Steve Marshall

“We were not surprised to find that GDL programs are associated with large reductions in fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers,” said Steve Marshall, PhD, UNC professor of epidemiology and study co-author. “Previous studies had found similar results. But no one had taken a thorough look at the larger age spectrum to see if there were any long-term effects associated with the program. The programs were associated with increased fatal crashes among 18-year-olds, which suggests that the programs need to be studied to see how their effects can be extended into this age group.”

Marshall, interim director of UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center, cautioned that the study authors are not saying the programs don’t work. “The take-home message is that GDL programs do work,” he said. “But as they are currently implemented across the U.S., we are missing the opportunity to save even more teen lives.”

Robert Foss, PhD, adjunct professor of maternal and child health at the UNC public health school, director of the UNC Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and also a co-author of the study, said that further research is planned to see what kinds of changes might help lower traffic fatalities among older teens.

“Stronger GDL programs, which include restrictions on both nighttime driving and transporting passengers during the initial period of unsupervised driving, were associated with a much larger crash savings among 16-year-old drivers and without a commensurately large increase among 18-year-old drivers,” Foss said. “This suggests that these stronger GDL programs are better in terms of reducing crashes among teen drivers overall.”

The study examined GDL programs for young novice drivers in the U.S. that included restrictions on nighttime driving and allowed passengers in the car with the teen drivers. It noted that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in the United States for teenagers. From 2000 to 2008, more than 23,000 drivers and 14,000 passengers ages 16 to 19 years were killed. GDL systems now have been adopted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to reduce crashes among teenaged drivers. GDL is structured to ensure that young novices gain extensive experience driving in low-risk conditions before they ‘graduate’ in steps to driving in riskier conditions.

Scott V. Masten, PhD, recent graduate of the UNC public health school’s department of epidemiology and now associated with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, in Sacramento, Calif., conducted the study with Marshall and Foss.

The researchers caution that their study only includes fatal crashes. Effects for non-fatal crashes could be different.

The article is available on the JAMA website.

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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu.