Education As Incapacitation: Why Are States Making it Harder to Get a Learner’s Permit?


I got in trouble earlier this summer when a teacher caught me surfing the Internet during a “Safe Driving Practices” class I had to attend so that my son could get his Connecticut driver’s license. While a parent has to attend for 2 hours, a 16-year-old must attend for a mind-numbing 8 hours before qualifying to take a written test. The mandatory class is part of Connecticut’s graduated driver licensing requirements, which make it (i) harder for a 16 or 17-year-old to get a learner’s permit, (ii) harder to get a license, and (iii) severely limits the kinds of driving you can do with these licenses.

I was surfing the Internet during class, because something the instructor said about accident statistics since the program was rolled out in 2008 seemed defensive – so I started to look up Connecticut statistics online.

Having attended 2 hours of the training, I seriously doubted that the 8-hour classes serve an educational function.  Nonetheless, surfing made me feel somewhat better about having to sit there because I learned that the new requirements are having an impact: they’re deterring young people from getting their licenses. Look, for example, at what happened to the number of 16 and 17-year-olds receiving learner permits in 2008 when the law took effect (which I calculated from this data):

A new state study on teen driving indicates that the rate at which 16 and 17-year-olds are becoming licensed to drive is down sharply since the new law went into effect. In 2001, 42% of 16-year-olds were licensed to drive. Now only 29% are. Connecticut’s experience is consistent with a national trend: “the proportion of 16-year-olds nationwide who hold driver’s licenses has dropped from nearly half to less than one-third, according to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

The study points to a number of factors causing this decline, including reduced “discretionary spending in a poorly performing economy,”  “restrict[ed] the use of cars on campus,” parents being more “willing to chauffeur their children to activities, and pastimes like surfing the Web that keep them indoors and glued to computers.”

But I’m betting that the hassle factor of the new restrictions looms large. You have to do a lot more to get a license and there is less that you can do with a minor’s license if you do qualify. It’s a whole lot easier just to wait until you’re 18 when none of these special prophylactics apply.

A closer look at the data suggests that young males and females are being equally deterred from getting their licenses. As a matter of gender equality, this might seem like a good thing, but young male drivers are about twice as dangerous as young female drivers (see statistics here and here). I worry that the new law is deterring a lot of young women from driving (or making them jump through a bunch of arbitrary hoops) in order to keep the more dangerous male of the species off the road.

I also worry that the restrictions likely have pronounced class effects. The 16-year-olds who can afford to pay for the class and who can get their parents to take the 2 hour class are likely to have more resources than those who don’t.  Like literacy tests for voting, the most important impact of the new educational requirements for driving is to incapacitate citizens from exercising the right or privilege. A special poll tax for young drivers might accomplish much the same result. But by reframing impedance as education, we make the requirements more politically palatable.

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  1. Andrew says:

    While it may be the case these laws are having some sort of influence on gender equality and class among teen drivers, that’s merely a side effect. The real reason states (and potentially congress with the STANDUP Act) are passing more stringent requirements around licensing of teens are because they aren’t ready to drive responsibly. The leading cause of death among people 15-20 years of age are car crashes. Don’t believe me? Just Google it.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 13 Thumb down 11
    • Natalie says:

      I’m not so sure it’s relevant that car accidents are a leading cause of death among youth, given that young people are disproportionately less likely to die from disease (diseases being a leading cause of death among older people). After all, some cause of death is always the “leading cause”. It would probably be more helpful to compare the likeliness of dying in a car accident at different age groups.

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  2. Mike B says:

    The truth is that young drivers are dangerous and while in the 1950’s it may have been ok to let them occasionally bump into things today’s roads are more crowded than ever with more distractions. I got my driver’s license in 1998, well after my 17th birthday and at the time New Jersey not only required one to pass the driving text in conjunction with a Driver’s Ed course, but also6 hours of in-car driving school lessons (you’d get your permit first, then the driving instructor would stamp it to make it valid with any licensed driver). However after getting my license I barely drove because I knew that I was not experienced and that if I didn’t want to risk serious injury and/or financial liability I should gain experience in a safe and responsible manner.

    If all young persons could show this sort of responsibility in judging their own driving talents then such laws would be completely unnecessary, however persons of that age are notoriously bad at things like judgement and risk analysis. Seeing as how I don’t recall anyone in New Jersey bellyaching that having to take a driver’s ed course, pass a driving test and then get 6 hours of in-car instruction made getting a permit/license an “elite” activity I think you’re full of bull plop. The largest barrier to a 16 or 17 year old driving is the $1000/yr+ insurance surcharge it costs to put such a risky driver on a family insurance plan.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 14
  3. ktb says:

    Wasn’t I reading just yesterday about the “accident hump” with young boys? Clearly we need to lower barriers to driving for this age group.

    Someone is wrong on the internet.

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  4. BB says:

    Here in Ontario, Canada, there is another reason. The licensing system has been privatized, which gives the examiners financial incentive to fail students repeatedly.

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  5. Lucas says:

    If the net effect is to take drivers off the road then it sounds like a great program.

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  6. Bart says:

    Ian, whether the reason is financial or otherwise, it appears that keeping teenagers off the road is a good thing…

    That said, is it really about teenagers or is it about being new to driving? I started driving big trucks when I was 12 – the kind that carry rice and wheat out of the fields and back to the silos. I am now in my 50’s and have yet to have anything on my DMV record. Is i because I grew up more cautious than others? Maybe. It may also have been that at 12 and 13 driving big trucks was a prestigious job and therefore I took care of my reputation, because if I was busted back the alternatives on the farm could get quite, um, dirty.

    This link is to CA’s DMV page about accident statistics with links to other stats.

    They lead with this statement “The relationship between age and driving behavior has interested highway safety researchers and administrators for many years. It is generally acknowledged that the greatest risk of traffic crashes is among teenage drivers. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers across the United States. For both men and women, drivers aged 16 to 19 years of age have the highest average annual crash and traffic violation rates of any other age group

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    • mfw13 says:

      The right to vote is a consitutional right…the right to drive a motor vehicle is not. Probably not the best comparison.

      Anything that requires drivers to develop a higher level of expertise is fine by me, given the extent to which inexperienced and unlicensed drivers are responsible for accidents.

      Now if only we could increase the penalties for DUI and driving without a valid license to the point where they actual deter bad drivers from getting behind the wheel.

      It seems like every other day you read about somebody getting killed/seriously injured by either an unlicensed driver or a driver with multiple DUIs.

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      • Sergio says:

        I’d that driving should be seen as a privilege: it’s dangerous, and you need to be fully trained to avoid fatal consequences not only for yourself but for those who share the road with you.

        Coming from Spain where is really difficult and expensive to get a driving license, I found drivers in my current city, Chicago, completely undertrained for this task. Not only that: the risk perception of many drivers is inexistent. Not only talking about speaking on the phone while driving (which as far as I know is even illegal) but even texting (sticking your tongue out while looking down when driving is quite obvious) or eating a sandwich with two hands while driving slowly on the left lane with your baby on the back seat (yes, I saw a woman doing this on our way back from Champaign, IL).

        With this type of irresponsible behavior around this privilege should be taken away immediately. It is not about freedom, it is about us and put families getting killed by such type of drivers.

        Larger investments in public transport (dispersionI would that lack of these plus geographic dispersion/slow urban density might be part of the problem) would reduce greatly the amount of licenses having to be granted to unsuitable candidates.

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  7. ScottF says:

    “Like literacy tests for voting, the most important impact of the new educational requirements for driving is to incapacitate citizens from exercising the right or privilege.”

    I think you sum up the difference well with the phrase “right or privilege”. Voting is a right. Driving is a privilege. I think it’s ok to have higher barriers for privileges.

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  8. MikeM says:

    Yeah, I would agree with some of the other comments and say incapacitating deadly road-missiles is a good thing.

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