The 1997 North Carolina General Assembly changed the way high school age drivers are licensed, adopting an approach known as graduated licensing, which is grounded in extensive scientific evidence about human learning, adolescent development, the nature of teen driver crashes, and effective policy design.
The roads of North Carolina have been markedly safer ever since.
This change was spurred by research at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center which revealed that inexperience is the main culprit in teen driver crashes. Carelessness, deliberate risk taking, feelings of invulnerability play little or no role.
In many ways, learning to drive resembles learning to play a continuous action sport like basketball or soccer. The only way beginners become competent is by getting extensive direct experience. Driving a lot in a wide range of settings is essential for novices. Doing so takes a year or longer.
Policymakers astutely acted on this important new knowledge, and for the past quarter century all young beginning drivers in North Carolina have spent the first year driving with the protective supervision of a licensed adult — usually a parent. This first step is followed by another six months requiring supervision only in the riskiest conditions: driving after 9 p.m. or when carrying more than one young passenger.
North Carolina’s graduated driver licensing system became law in December 1997. The logic of, and evidence for, this approach to licensing was so compelling that 135 members of the N.C. General Assembly (79%) sponsored the bill to adopt it. The result was a dramatic 46% drop in fatal and serious injury crashes among 16-year-old drivers. That lowered rate has remained ever since.
A properly designed licensing system — which we’ve had for 25 years — protects everyone on the roads, not just teen drivers. In teen driver crashes, more than half of those injured or killed are someone other than the teen.
Statewide surveys of parents of recently licensed teens indicate extremely strong support for the entire graduated licensing approach. Most notably 95% of parents approve a 12-month (or longer) learner period.
In view of that, it was mind-boggling to see the N.C. Senate pass a bill on March 16 to change the licensing process, eviscerating two of the three most important elements of the system. If enacted into law, it would reduce the supervised driving period to 9 months and allow two young passengers during the intermediate license period. Extensive research indicates both changes will result in more crashes, injuries and deaths.
I suspect most who voted for Senate Bill 156 have no idea why the licensing system is structured as it is. This system has been in place for so long, there is no need for legislators to know of its elegance — until they consider changing it. Most of those who worked to enact it have long since retired. However, experts at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, who have been studying teen licensing and safety continually since 1993 can explain. They should be asked!
The genesis of the recent bill may have been to address an unintended effect of temporary, pandemic-induced tweaks to the licensing system by the legislature. Due to a glitch in that bill, some teens who started their learner period in 2022 are finding the rules have changed since they began. Changing requirements mid-stream is clearly unfair, but that is easily corrected by simply allowing this group to finish their licensing process according to the rules that existed when they began.
There is no need whatsoever to permanently degrade a highly successful system, ignoring the wisdom and wishes of virtually all parents in the process. No state has ever taken such a retrograde step. North Carolina should not be the first.
Robert Foss, PhD, is the retired director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. He lives in Durham.