Graduated driver licensing decreases motor vehicle crashes – the evidence and the uptake

Graduated driver licensing programs have been implemented in many jurisdictions around the world to reduce the disproportionately high motor vehicle crash rates seen among young drivers. The programs vary in how they are structured but the underlying principle is the same: new drivers begin driving under conditions that pose less risk and are gradually introduced to higher risk or more complex driving situations. Examples of restrictions include no unsupervised driving, no driving at night, having fewer passengers (hence, distractions) in the car, no driving on high speed roadways, and lower limits for blood alcohol concentration.

A Cochrane systematic review identified 34 studies that evaluated graduated licensing programs. Most of the studies were conducted in the United States, with a few conducted in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. All of the studies were population-based and used data from routinely collected information sources, such as police reports or hospital records. Studies compared outcomes, such as crash rates, before and after implementation of a graduated licensing program or to another jurisdiction without a program.

The programs varied in their structure and the types of restrictions that they employed; however, all showed a positive impact. Among all teenage drivers, graduated licensing programs reduced:

  • crashes (median 10%);
  • injuries (median 20%); and,
  • deaths (median 31%).

The review authors, of whom I was one, concluded that graduated licensing “is effective in reducing crash rates of young drivers.” However, since the programs varied in their structure and restrictions, it was difficult to tease out which specific aspects of graduated licensing have the most impact. We suggested that future research focus on which components are the most effective.

It wasn’t until this past year, 10 years after the initial version of this review was published, that the weight of those words would really hit home for me.

My oldest child was 7 when the review was first published; she is now 17 and received her driver’s license last summer. One day she asked to go to the beach outside of town for an afternoon with a friend. I was reluctant (as mothers are prone to be) but my husband and I agreed. It was a sunny summer afternoon, so presumably low risk in terms of driving conditions.

My husband and I were at work when the RCMP called us and told us our daughter had been in a single vehicle collision, and she and her friend (the only other passenger) were being transported by ambulance to the nearest hospital. My heart skipped a beat as I was seized with panic. The RCMP officer described what he knew of the circumstances: the car had hit gravel at high speed and rolled twice. He described the extent of damage to the car (which was irreparable) and told us the girls were lucky to be alive.IMG_0003 (1)

The girls thankfully only had minor aches and pains resulting from the collision. The only visible injuries were burn marks, providing evidence of the benefits of wearing seatbelts. I am also slowly recovering from the panic and fear this type of incident instills—as well as the thoughts that have plagued me since, among the most prominent: “Is there something we should have done differently to avoid this situation altogether?”

For the answer, my thoughts turn back to our Cochrane review on the impact of graduated licensing. While my daughter went through driver’s education and we practiced together, she was clearly unprepared for the gravel road she encountered and how to manage the vehicle under those conditions. In the review, we concluded that graduated licensing is effective, but that more research is needed to determine the optimal components of a graduated licensing program. Now I find it a valuable resource from a parent’s perspective, as it provides ideas for restrictions parents could impose for their own children and situations where supervised driving may be preferable until the child gains experience in varied circumstances.

My other children already know that they will have to follow a very rigid graduated licensing program of my own design, and informed by the best available evidence, before they will be allowed to drive on their own. I would urge all parents to consider the evidence and understand the different aspects of graduated licensing. The systematic review, where key information has been assembled and synthesized, is an excellent starting point.

More information:

  • Our synthesis– Russell KF, Vandermeer B, Hartling L. Graduated driver licensing for reducing motor vehicle crashes among young drivers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD003300. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003300.pub3.
  • A GDL crash reduction calculator created by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows the impact of different components of graduated licensing on collision claims and fatal crashes.
  • Cochrane summary

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