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A Healthy Return on Your Town Hall Meeting Investment—Getting to Outcomes: Graduated Driver Licensing


Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2008 alone, crashes took the lives of more than 5,800 people younger than age 20. Underage drinking played a significant role in traffic crash–related deaths, with 10 percent of drivers under age 16 and 18 percent of those aged 16 to 20 having a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08 or higher.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2010 Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System, 10 percent of high school students drove after drinking alcohol. Twenty-eight percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. At all levels of blood alcohol concentration, the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens than for older drivers. Investing in stronger graduated driver licensing laws can pay big dividends in reducing the likelihood and consequences of alcohol-impaired driving by underage drinkers. A 2012 Town Hall Meeting, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), may be the perfect venue for educating your community about these laws and their relationship to underage drinking prevention. Graduated driver licensing systems are one form of environmental prevention1 in reducing underage drinking.

What are graduated driver licensing laws?

Graduated driver’s licensing laws are designed to gradually introduce new drivers to different driving circumstances. Usually, they allow beginners to gain experience driving as they move from a highly supervised permit to a supervised license with restrictions and then to a full-privileged driver’s license.

Nearly every State has a graduated driver licensing law, but these vary considerably. The best graduated driver licensing laws includes:

  • A learner’s permit stage, beginning at age 16 and lasting at least 6 months.

  • An intermediate license phase (after the applicant passes the driver’s test) that:

    • Bans unsupervised night driving during the first 6 to 12 months of licensure; and

    • Bans unsupervised driving with more than one passenger anytime.
  • A full-license phase for drivers 18 years old, obtainable only after the applicant completes the first two stages without a motor vehicle crash or conviction.

How do graduated driver licensing laws reduce underage drinking and its consequences?

Graduated driver licensing laws help new drivers gradually gain supervised experience under low-risk conditions (e.g., without distracting passengers) until they qualify for a full license. The ban on nighttime driving, in particular, keeps young drivers off the road during most of the hours associated with single-vehicle crashes by alcohol-impaired drivers (i.e., 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.). It also may be that young people who value their gradually acquired privilege of a full driver’s license may be less likely to use alcohol and risk losing that privilege. According to CDC, the strongest graduated driver licensing laws are associated with a 38 percent and 40 percent reduction in fatal and nonfatal injury crashes, respectively, for 16-year-old drivers.

How can my community take this action?

Take the following steps to initiate or strengthen graduated driver licensing:

  • Assess your State’s current law. If your State has few licensing restrictions, mobilize your community to get more graduated driver licensing restrictions passed. Your effort could target a county, but would most likely be at the State level. If your State has a comprehensive graduated driver licensing law, assess the degree to which it is being enforced. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates graduated driver licensing systems by State.

  • Engage the media. The primary component for implementing stronger graduated driver licensing laws is media awareness and advocacy. Implement public awareness activities in the community, and highlight the relationship between unrestricted youth driving and increased motor vehicle crashes and fatalities. The public should be aware that when more comprehensive graduated licensing laws are in place, both parents and law enforcement can better manage the risks of youth driving.

  • Raise public awareness. Inform your community about widespread support for graduated licensing. A 2010 national survey of 1,226 parents of teens, 15 to 18 years old, showed that these parents favor licensing policies as strong as or stronger than those currently existing in States.2

  • Measure and report successful outcomes. Some measures of effectiveness of graduated driver licensing laws are:

    • Rates of youth motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities among those aged 16 and 17;

    • Rates of compliance and/or noncompliance with the graduated driver licensing laws; and

    • Rates of arrests for driving under the influence among 16- to 17-year-olds.


1 Effective environmental prevention targets four key areas that influence alcohol problems: access and availability, policy and enforcement, community norms, and media messages. Research shows that policies that change the context of the environment, limit access to alcohol, and prevent harmful behavior will result in reduced alcohol use, including underage drinking.

2 Williams, A. F., Braitman, K. A., & McCartt, A. T. (2010). Views of parents of teenagers about licensing policies: A national survey. Arlington, VA: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. From (accessed March 9, 2012).

Helpful Resources

CDC’s graduated driver licensing Web page links to multiple factsheets and other information about effective licensing.

CDC’s The Health Communicator’s Social Media Toolkit has information to expand your organization’s outreach.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Teen Drivers: Graduated Driver Licensing Web page links to reports and research on graduated driver licensing. This page also includes evaluations of some State programs.

SAMHSA’s Focus on Prevention guides communities in planning and delivering substance abuse prevention strategies, including assessing needs, identifying partners, creating effective strategies, and evaluating programs.