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

(Comstock)

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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COMMENTS: 41


  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 15 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.

    http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/08/24/how-the-accident-hump-tells-us-boys-are-maturing-faster/

    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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  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

    http://dmv.ca.gov/teenweb/more_btn6/traffic/traffic.htm

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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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2
  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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  9. ep says:

    Well, this way instead of having 16-17 year olds who can’t drive, we’ll have 18-19 year olds who can’t drive. How is this better?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 3
  10. Maggie says:

    There’s also the unintended effect that more new drivers are less educated about driving safety, having NO requirement for driver’s ed. Plus the fact that more people may wait until they really need to drive — say, for a new job after college — and may even wait to learn to drive until slower reflexes make their new-driving lack of judgment more dangerous.

    You’ve tracked statistics about 16 and 17-yr-olds getting licensed … but what’s happening with accident rates for drivers in their first 2-5 years of being licensed?

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    • Enter your name says:

      Do you know why we’re not paying for driver’s ed classes any more? It’s because they DO NOT WORK.

      Those “six hours, in-class, behind-the-wheel, licensed instructor” programs were an enormous waste of money. First of all, in the real world, most of those programs resulted in only 90 minutes actually behind the wheel, because they put four students in the car at a time, and counted your time watching the other three as part of your time “behind the wheel”. (I suppose the entire back seat is technically “behind” the steering wheel, but that’s not what the parents thought they were getting for their tax dollars.)

      The kids who took the official classes and the kids who did not had the same rates of wrecks. They were just as likely to die. Sitting through those classes did not save one single life. They made a few parents happy, because the parents didn’t have to teach driving entirely by themselves, but the parents turned out to be just as (in)effective at teaching safe driving as the professionals.

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    • miriam says:

      If you look at the data we get from accidents with fatalities, drivers who start driving in their 20s have much lower accident rates initially than drivers who start in their teens. It’s an age thing, not an inexperience thing.

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  11. Sbard says:

    Texas recently passed laws that require anyone under the age of 25 to take a driver’s ed class before they can get a license. They also now require everyone in the car, even passengers in the rear seat to wear seatbelts.

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  12. Ryan P says:

    Several years ago when the standards for younger drivers was being tightened here in Texas, I found it interesting that the statistic the supporters of higher restrictions showed that 16 year-olds had the most accidents per mile driven.

    At the time, I wondered why they chose that specific statistic since it was entirely likely that the new license restrictions would lessen the number of miles driven by 16 year-olds. And since the restrictions being discussed were mostly related to limiting the nighttime hours in which 16 year-olds could operate a car and the highest time of day for accidents was actually the after-school hours of the afternoon, it’s entirely possible that the license restrictions would cause the number of accidents per mile driver by 16 year-olds to go up.

    (Also interesting to me during the debate: 19 year-olds actually had the 2nd highest number of accidents per mile driven but no restrictions were proposed on 19 year-old drivers)

    It wasn’t enough to make me oppose the restrictions, but I did find it interesting.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  13. Philippe says:

    The question I have then is: Does this remove poor drivers from the road, or does it just defer the bad driving of those 1-2 years? Do the 18 year-olds who have not gone through a shorter more useful course get in the same accidents that the 16 year-olds would have?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0
  14. Anonymous says:

    If the teenagers don’t endanger others by driving because of the rigamarole, then they’ll “go green” and endanger themselves on bicycles. Then, they’ll trigger wrecks anyways as drivers avoid reckless teens on bikes.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5
  15. MW says:

    Delaying people getting a license may not help the accident statistics at all in the long term. It may not be ‘driving while 16 or 17′ that is dangerous, but rather ‘driving within two years of getting your license’. In this case, you end up with the same risk profile over time, just shifted by a couple of years.

    You can’t test this simply with a two factor analysis of accident rate vs (age, time since licensed) as external factors can influence both accident rate and the age at which a person seeks a license. However, the Connecticut data should provide a natural experiment using the time period 2006-2010 and comparing to another state which did not abruptly tighten up on young drivers at the same time.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0
    • Natalie says:

      The idea that the first 2 years of driving is dangerous rings true to me, although I don’t have any numbers. I’ve noticed it in my city, which has a high population of Somalian refugees. Many first learn to drive here, and it seems to me that they make the same mistakes as 17-year-olds, regardless of their age.

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  16. Steve Bennett says:

    I wonder if an unintended consequence will be more use of bicycles, possibly with higher injury/fatality rates.

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  17. Milton Recht says:

    From your first statistics link:

    “Male motor vehicle crash deaths declined 27 percent from 1975 to 2009, while female deaths decreased 15 percent. The smaller decrease in female crash deaths overall was largely due to a 34 percent increase in deaths of female passenger vehicle drivers since 1975. Deaths of male passenger vehicle drivers declined 24 percent during the same time period.

    Male and female teenage drivers have the same death and accident rate per mile driven. Teenage males do most of the driving so have the higher accident rate. Teenagers also frequently have passengers in a car and the accident rate is directly proportional to the number of people in the car. More passengers in a car equal a greater likelihood of driver distraction. NY for example limits the number of occupants that can be in a car with a teenage driver.

    Teenagers tend to speed, use seat belts less often, and are less experienced. They also tend to drive at night for socializing and late at night when they are tired. Speeding, driver inexperience, nighttime driving, passengers and tiredness increase auto accident rates. Teens also tend to drink since it is a popular means of socializing. There are multiple contributors to the cause of an accident and auto accident deaths, but despite MADD’s public campaign against drinking and driving, neither MADD nor US government agencies have done a statistical analysis to show what if any the incremental impact of drinking and driving is to the cause of accidents above and beyond the other known causes.

    Any new driver has a higher accident rate, but teenagers are almost all new drivers. It takes about 3-5 years of driving for any new driver to become experienced to the extent that driving becomes automatic and does not require constant conscious reminders. Delaying teenage driving just moves the inexperience curve and higher accident rate to older drivers.

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  18. jobu babin says:

    Is the same concept as licensing restaurant servers in Tennessee with ABC permits every five years (@$80 a pop, including the mandatory five hour course to instruct how to keep patrons from drinking in an irresponsible manner). Little impact on externality, strong revenue builder.

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  19. Eric says:

    My experience is similar to Bart’s growing up on a farm. My grandfather started all of us on “driving lessons” at the age of 5 and by 8 or so we could help move equipment by following in a pickup. My own children have had similar experience. Interestingly the 20 of us who went through this system in some form have never had a serious accident.

    Here is a novel idea:
    instead of making a child wait until 16 before getting a chance to drive and having the various authorities working to keep you off the road why can’t we designate safe times and places where urban parents can safely teach their younger children some driving skills. I’m sure you have seen how quickly they adapt to playing new video games and sports. Maybe what they need is the repetition under supervision to give them a level of mastery that will make them safe drivers once they are 16. I also like this idea because it promotes children learning adult tasks at a younger age instead of making them dependents for a longer period of their lives which seems to be a current trend.

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  20. Allen says:

    The unspoken goal of these kinds of programs is to reduce the number of accidents this age group is involved in by simply reducing the number drivers in that age group. Wait 5 years and watch the accidents shift to the age group where the blocked drivers actually start driving.

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  21. gpo says:

    I hate this. We treat our kids like they are helpless. I took driver’s ed. I turned 16 and got my license. I got a job. My parents who were not well off never had to give me any money from there on out. The job I got was pretty far away from my house and I could not have had that job without a car. BTW the car my folks got me was a junker, but it got me from A to B. The job I got paid $1.65 over min wage and I got tons of hours.

    The pride I got from making my own money was priceless and had a lasting effect on my life.

    Also the only accident I ever got into while in high school was when a man in his 50s rear-ended me. I guess we should have made him and his parents take a class.

    I don’t want to haul my kids around when they turn 16, but I probably will have to.

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    • econobiker says:

      Too many teens cannot get decent paying jobs anymore since we allowed illegal immigrants to scoop up those jobs for less wages. Just sayin’..

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  22. GSE says:

    Yeah, all these regulations are having an impact: When I got a job that required a car my wife had to drive me there and back for 18 months. I managed not to need a license in high school because I lived in a walkable suburb, and I avoided it in college because I went to an urban school, and had internships instead of summer breaks. So I was 24, just out of college as a professional computer scientist, and I had to wait months, take a Driver’s Ed class that I already took in HS, and submit a drivers log proving I had 60 hours of experience. None of that made me a better driver, but it was a major pain in the ass, big waste of fuel, and a strain on our new marriage.

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  23. Mike says:

    Young people and any intelligent people who care about the world around them are stopping driving. Maybe this was just the bump most teens needed as they have already learned about the many damages of driving a car far beyond accidents.

    The older generation is overweight and lazy and will never stop driving no matter what the cost. This is a very different situation for younger people who have not already destroyed their bodies with inactivity and fast food.

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  24. DW88 says:

    I live and have always lived in LA. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 23, after completing college (while living 10 miles from campus) and beginning to work in the entertainment industry. I didn’t really have the money to spend… not just on the car, but the unending additional expenses… gas, registration, parking fees, repairs, etc.

    I didn’t have to beg rides from friends. I knew how to get around on my own w/o much problem, even in LA in the 1970s. I still can. If my car breaks down, I have the confidence that I can get home anyway. I didn’t take the plunge until forced to because my work demanded that I drive, not just going to and from, but in the course of work. My hours became long and strange, and my work place an ever-moving target.

    In looking back, I’m glad I did not begin driving until 23. Instead, I gained confidence a different sort of independence that I could not have gained by just jumping in a car and going. I learned the city at street level. I simply do not think that at 16 or 17 I was ready to drive, and I subconsciously knew it.

    Perhaps I was ready by age 18, but by then learning, getting a car, etc was not only still unaffordable, but a hassle that I was fine doing w/o.

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  25. econobiker says:

    Two items:
    1. So has anyone questioned about if the auto insurance industry is promoting the tighter restrictions?

    2. So has anyone identified the penetration of cell phones, social media, and computer use among 16-17 year olds over the same time span? This goes hand in hand with the decline of shopping malls since teens no longer need to physically connect now to stay connected.

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  26. John B says:

    In addition to the rules prior to getting a license, Connecticut restricts how you drive once you have the license. 16-17 year olds are not allowed have another young person in the car with them.

    So, when my daughter and her two friends went to the movies., the Connecticut law required three young girls to drive in 3 different cars. Gee, that makes a lot of sense:
    1. Use 3 times the gas. Great for the environment.
    2. Puts 3 cars on the road instead of 1; bad for congestion.
    3. 3 young drivers on the road at the same time; if they are as unsafe as the state claims, you just increased the odds of an accident.
    4. Forced young girls to drive alone at night; less safety.
    5. I am certain you can find other reasons why this made no sense.

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  27. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Apropos of driving…

    I lived in California where they had “Traffic School”. These were awesome ways to learn about driving, government, police, etc. I will always be grateful. One teacher carried a dog-eared copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and he would ask the class (e.g.), “Why does the officer have to show up in court?” and the class in unison would respond, “BECAUSE IT’S IN THE CONSTITUTION….”. He also showed how, given time and some persistence, one never has to get a ticket on his/her driving record. You just keep appealing. Why? BECAUSE IT’S IN THE CONSTITUTION”. Ultimately the court will give you community service, traffic school or whatever, and no fine or record.

    My website has an enormous Google rating because I have a free downloadable PDF called “How I beat a Lidar Speeding Ticket”. Just Google it.

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  28. Brian Gulino says:

    There’s all kinds of “impedance tests” as you call it, relating to kids. Want your kid have a well-rounded athletic experience? Coach his Little League team and attend all his games. Play a musical instrument? You better be able to pay for music lessons and have the time to drive to the lessons.

    Many activities which, in my childhood, were simply part of growing up, are only available to children whose parents have the time and money to contribute.

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  29. Sergio says:

    And sorry for the messy typos… On my way to some iPad typing lessons now…

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  30. Larry Grant says:

    Bureaucratic government requires dependency. Infantilization for longer and longer periods provides it.

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  31. Big Don says:

    In today’s bad economy, folks can’t as readily afford for their kids to drive (cars, gas, *INSURANCE*). “Sorry, kid, you can drive when *YOU* can pay all the costs…”

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  32. RG says:

    There are several similar restrictions in Canadian provinces, and it always bothers me how the evidence of the effectiveness of these programs are ignored. In a few cases, even more restrictions have been added after the first set failed to lower accident rates. This seems to me to be the opposite of a rational response.

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