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. 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?

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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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.

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  5. 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?

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

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    • 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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  8. 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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