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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Sergio says:

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

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  6. Larry Grant says:

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

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  7. 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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  8. 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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