Graduated Driver License Programs for Teen Drivers

Learn why states offer graduated driver’s licenses, what they (usually) consist of, and how they lower the teen accident rate.

teen driver with graduated drivers license

There’s no question: teens are more dangerous drivers than any other age group.

Due to many factors, a disproportionately large percentage of young drivers are involved in traffic accidents. These factors include: a lack of driving experience and poor driving skills, distractions from other passengers, excessive nighttime driving, and risky behavior.

In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 16-year-old drivers are three times more likely than 17-year-olds to crash their cars. They are five times as likely to crash as 18-year-olds, and twice as likely as 85-year-olds to get into an accident.

Then there’s the research that shows that teens are twice as likely as adults to be involved in a fatal crash. What’s more, teens are four times as likely as people between age 25 and 69 to be involved in a fatal car crash. If your child is a new driver and has been in an accident, your insurance rates will likely go up considerably.

A few other sobering statistics about teen drivers:

  • Car accidents are the leading killer of American teens
  • More than 10 teens die every day in the United States as a result of crashes
  • Each year, more than 5,000 people die (and thousands more are injured) in teen-related crashes
  • Over 90,000 people have been killed since 1999

Graduated Driver Licensing to the Rescue

As horrific as the numbers above are, they’re better than they were in the past. This improvement is largely due to the introduction and popularity of Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) programs.

Originally created in Australia in the 1960s, these programs didn’t show up in America until the late 1980s. GDLs usually involve three phases: learner’s permit, intermediate (provisional) license, and full license.

Before, American teenagers went through a straightforward and far more dangerous process to get a driver’s license. At that time, drivers as young as 16 who passed the tests got their licenses and were unleased on the world. They were free to pile as many of their friends into a car as they could, and go for a ride.

Since the 1980s, every single state has enacted some sort of GDL law, but they vary quite a bit. Different states include different components, including the strength of the restrictions.

Explaining the Three Phases of GDL

Beyond simply reducing teen car crashes, GDL programs also introduce young drivers to the driving experience in a gradual, low-risk manner. They increase privileges and decrease restrictions over a period of years, and by completing the following phases:

Stage 1: Learner’s Permit—In general, a teen needs to be a certain age (16 in most states) and pass vision and knowledge tests to get his or her learner’s permit. In states such as California, teens under the age of 18 need to take an in classroom or online California Drivers Ed course. Also, most states mandate these drivers be with an experienced adult while driving. Some states have a variety of restrictions, such as a limit on the number of passengers, use of cell phones, and even the types of roads they can drive on.

Stage 2: Intermediate, Provisional, or Probationary License—After a driver has held a learner’s permit for six months, and passed a behind-the-wheel test, they may drive without adult supervision. That said, they would still face numerous restrictions on driving. For example, they can only drive at certain times of day without an adult present. This typically includes after midnight until around sunrise. Other common restrictions involve the number of passengers and cell-phone usage.

Stage 3: Unrestricted/Full Licensure—Teen drivers can apply for a full license once they’ve fulfilled a series of prerequisites. For example, they must reach a certain age, spend a specific number of hours behind the wheel, and pass a road or hazard-perception tests. It’s important to note that these tasks differ from state to state.

GDL Success So Far

How successful have GDL programs and laws been since they first appeared? According to research from The Safe Roads 4 Teens Coalition, states with strong GDL laws have fewer teen driver crashes, up to 40 percent in some cases.

Fewer crashes are good for everyone, teens and parents alike. Parents of teens who have recently completed GDL programs have more than one reason to celebrate: this may bring down the cost of car insurance. If your son or daughter has recently completed the first two GDL stages, you should compare rates to make sure you’re not overpaying.

Get a quote now to make sure you're paying the lowest rate possible.

Other studies have returned similarly positive (and broad) results, including:

  • An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report from May 2012 found that the death rate for 16-year-old drivers fell 68 percent between 1996 and 2010 thanks to the adoption of GDL laws. For 17-year -olds, the death rate fell 59 percent during the same period, while it fell 52 percent and 47 percent for 18- and 19-year-olds, respectively
  • In 2006, Johns Hopkins University released a national evaluation of GDL programs that found that the most comprehensive programs bring about reductions of about 20 percent in 16-year-old drivers’ fatal crash rates
  • A 2002 study from Nova Scotia found the likelihood of crashes among beginning drivers was reduced during both the learner and intermediate portions of the GDL process. This was the first study to investigate the benefits of each of these licensing stages

GDL programs have been found to be successful on a state level, too. A few cases in point:

  • According to one study from 2000, Florida’s GDL law caused a 9-percent reduction in crashes for drivers aged 16 and 17 years old
  • Ongoing research in Michigan and North Carolina shows that the GDL programs in place in those states caused a 26-percent reduction in crashes involving 16-year-olds. They also found a 25-percent reduction in crashes involving 17-year-old drivers
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s evaluation of Georgia’s and Oregon’s GDL programs found that both have succeeded in decreasing the teen crash rates
Graduated License Laws, State by State, as of January 2015
State Permit Length Provisional License Night Driving Restriction(2) Passenger Restrictions(3) Cell Phone(4)
Alabama 6 months X X X talk
Alaska 6 X X X  
Arizona 6 X X X  
Arkansas 6 X X X talk
California 6 X X X talk
Colorado 12 X X X talk
Connecticut 6 X X X talk
Delaware 6 X X X talk
D.C. 6 X X X talk
Florida 12 X X    
Georgia 12 X X X talk
Hawaii 6 X X X talk
Idaho 6 X X X  
Illinois 9 X X X talk
Indiana 6 X X X talk
Iowa 12 X X   talk
Kansas 12 X X X talk
Kentucky 6 X X X talk
Louisiana 6 X X   talk
Maine 6 X X X talk
Maryland 9 X X X talk
Massachusetts 6 X X X talk
Michigan 6 X X X talk
Minnesota 6 X X X talk
Mississippi 12 X X   text
Missouri 6 X X X text
Montana 6 X X X  
Nebraska 6 X X X talk
Nevada 6 X X X  
New Hampshire 3(5) X X X talk
New Jersey 6 X X X talk
New Mexico 6 X X X talk
New York 6 X X X  
North Carolina 12 X X X talk
North Dakota 6-12(6) X X   talk
Ohio 6 X X X talk
Oklahoma 6 X X X talk,text(7)
Oregon 6 X X X talk
Pennsylvania 6 X X X  
Rhode Island 6 X X X talk
South Carolina 6 X X X  
South Dakota 6 X     talk
Tennessee 6 X X X talk
Texas 6 X X X talk, text
Utah 6 X X X talk
Vermont 12 X   X talk
Virginia 9 X X X talk
Washington 6 X X X talk
West Virginia 6 X X X talk
Wisconsin 6 X X X talk
Wyoming 10 days X X X  

(1) Designed to aid young novice drivers between the ages of 15 and 18 gain driving experience. To date they apply only to drivers under the age of 18. All states have lower blood alcohol content laws for under-21 drivers which range from none to 0.02 percent, in contrast with 0.08 percent for drivers over the age of 21 in all states. Includes graduated licensing as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Every state has a graduated licensing law.
(2) Intermediate stage; varies by state with regard to age of driver, night hours that driving is restricted, who must accompany driver during night hours and how long and what stage the restrictions are lifted. Exceptions may be made for work, school or religious activities and emergencies.
(3) Intermediate stage; limits the number of teenage passengers a young driver may have in the vehicle.
(4) Only includes states with restrictions on the use of cellphones for talking or texting by young drivers. Does not reference cellphone laws such as bans on handheld cellphones that apply to all drivers in some states.
(5) New Hampshire does not issue learners permits.
(6) Under age 16: 12 months; 16-18: 6 months.
(7) Banned for nonlife threatening purposes.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; U.S. Department of transportation, National Highway traffic Safety Administration; National Conference of State Legislatures; Insurance Information Institute.

Table Adapted From the Insurance Information Institute (

References: LLC has made every effort to ensure that the information on this site is correct, but we cannot guarantee that it is free of inaccuracies, errors, or omissions. All content and services provided on or through this site are provided "as is" and "as available" for use. LLC makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the operation of this site or to the information, content, materials, or products included on this site. You expressly agree that your use of this site is at your sole risk.