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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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