Since North Dakota adopted its law in 2012, every state now requires a graduated driver license (GDL) program for any teenager to get behind the wheel of a car. And from what I've seen, there is significant evidence that these programs, which compel teens to go through an extensive and lengthy "drill" before graduating to full driver’s licenses, work.
From 1996 -- when Florida passed the first GDL program -- to 2010, the death rate for 16-year-old drivers fell 68 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And 17-, 18- and 19-year-old drivers also had significantly fewer road fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control said in 2010 that the number of fatal crashes involving 16- and 17-year-olds dropped by more than a third, due in part to GDLs. And in the mountainous, winding road state of Colorado, officials cited GDLs for having reduced teenage road deaths by 60 percent in five years.
Safer but still costly
Auto insurers are quick to cite these statistics when it comes to encouraging state legislatures to adopt even tougher laws controlling teenage drivers. Among the restrictions they want enforced: no less than 65 hours of supervised practice, no other teens in the car and no driving at night.
Insurers may encourage GDLs, but they won't provide a discount for teenage drivers who now drive more safely. I live in New Jersey, which arguably has the most restrictive GDL program, mandating that young drivers display a decal on the license plate to tell police that a teenager is behind the wheel.
"I have not seen one single insurance company file lower rates or discounts upon the adoption of any state GDL," says Chief Operating Officer Eric Poe of New Jersey's CURE auto insurance program.
And the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, Robert Hunter, said he wasn't aware of any insurer nationally who was doing so.
No incentive to change
Frankly, there is no incentive for auto insurance companies to reduce rates for safer teenage drivers because these teens -- and their parents, who often pay the hefty premiums -- earn insurers a lot of money. Young Generation Y'ers, who represent about 10 percent of the total driving population, can pay up to $10,000 a year for a liability policy -- if they live in a crowded state or have had a few tickets.
But insurers also have some valid concerns:
- Teenage drivers still comprise the most dangerous segment of the population, responsible for 1.2 million serious crashes in 2011, according to the Department of Transportation, even though 21- to 24-year-olds have more fatal accidents. However, fatalities don't necessarily equate to claims, and there are few statistics -- except those kept by insurers for insurers -- to show how many fender-benders are caused by teens.
- Teenage drivers tend to lie about their driving, particularly to their parents. A State Farm survey of 500 parents and teens found that young drivers didn't follow parental instructions to avoid nighttime driving or to keep other teens out of the car.
Insurers also cite a National Institute of Mental Health study showing that teenagers don't think like adults -- some would say they don't think at all -- and that the cortex of a teenager's brain, which controls thought and memory, isn't fully formed until they reach their early 20s.
So it appears likely that GDLs will become ever more restrictive, lessening the time teens spend behind the wheel, without giving teenage drivers or their parents a break in insurance rates. Statistics cited by the Financial Times show that car ownership, and the distance Americans travel, are dropping, with the biggest decline among younger drivers.
Gone are the days captured in song by the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and Bruce Springsteen, when carefree youth would jump in the V8, rev the engine and take off down Thunder Road.