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.


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.

Mike B

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.



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.


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


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


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



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.


"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.


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


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?


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?


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.

Ryan P

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.



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?


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.


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.

Steve Bennett

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

Milton Recht

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.


jobu babin

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.


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.