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A case for GDL as a national standard
The science is in, Graduated Driver Licensing works. So why is there still no standard nor national implementation?
Posted October 25, 2012
As mentioned in our piece "Teen drivers at risk, it's a physiological thing," few countries let people drive as young as we in North America do - i.e., in the US and Canada. Most countries are more prudent, it seems, especially in light of all sorts of neurological data showing unambiguously that certain parts of the human brain - like those associated with multi-tasking, decision-making, and risk assessment - just aren't mature until late teens or early 20s.

However, you can't just say "teens shouldn't drive" and leave it at that. For one thing, it's not realistic to think that the legal driving age could be easily increased, especially as every province in Canada and every state in the US is allowed to make its own laws and driving regulations.

More importantly, though, it wouldn't be enough. Older drivers are safer drivers not only because their brains are more mature, but because they have enough driving experience to make most driving tasks, neurologically speaking, "routine functions." Most adults don't have to consciously think "Now press down on the accelerator a little bit… now a bit more… good, now look in the rearview mirror, now the side mirror, turn on the turn signal, let off the gas a bit, now turn my head quickly to check my blind spot, now pull the wheel gently about 35 degrees to the right, which Uncle Bob the bus driver always called 'clockwise' and I wonder what that means on a digital watch?"

Instead, most driving actions have become familiar enough that they impose a relatively small demand on the brain's executive functioning. This leaves the brain plenty of bandwidth for things like monitoring the jerkwad in front, merging onto a highway full of trucks that are trying to kill you, assessing whether that bicyclist ahead is giving off a turn-left-without-warning kind of vibe. But when you're first learning to drive, few if any driving tasks are routine. The new driver has to consciously do pretty much everything, so it all imposes a heavy demand on executive functioning.

So it follows that the introduction of anything extra - whether it's a distraction inside the car or a complicated situation in the driving environment - can simply make the cognitive load too heavy. At that point, not much is left for things like decision-making. This is particularly true of teenagers, whose brains are still working on developing those functions, but it would be true of any new driver as well. So pushing back the minimum driving age wouldn't solve the problem. There's a learning curve for all beginners, regardless of age. Older new drivers might have a speedier time of it, or at least have a better grasp of their own mortality and absorb information about avoiding death-by-Mac-Truck a bit better, but all new drivers need to learn this stuff from scratch.

So what's need are ways to help new drivers get the experience they need to start routinizing (yes, that's a word) driving tasks but without putting them or other drivers at great risk on the roads. Of course, that's what driving schools are for, and the allegedly effective teenSmart driver education curriculum.

Still, driver's ed programs, by their very nature, focus on boosting the safety of one teen driver at a time by making that one teen a better driver. That's great in the mitigating sense of things, but the statistical collision rates of teen drivers aren't just a teen issue. They're a public safety issue.

In 2009, 5,673 people died in the US as a result of an accident involving a teen driver. 2,349 of these - about 41 percent - were the drivers themselves. Another 1,459 were their passengers. But that leaves nearly a third - 1,865 people - who had nothing to do with those teen drivers at all - they weren't even in the car with the teen, they were somewhere else, minding their own business and otherwise falling into the category of "innocent bystander" or "the public," killed by a teen driver who wasn't killed and therefore immune to the statistical irrelevance of drivers ed effectiveness.

Fortunately, when addressing teen driving issues as a matter of public safety, we think about the whole landscape of driver licensing and driver education. And that what the graduated driver licensing (GDL) approach does.

GDL requires much longer periods of learner's permit driving, followed by a period during which driving is restricted in ways that minimize the risk of cognitive overload: no night driving, no driving with other teens in the car, no devices of any kind powered up while in the car. After this period is over, then the drivers move on to an unrestricted driver's license.

GDL is widely employed across many Provinces and States. And where this approach has really been tested and evaluated - i.e. a few states such as Colorado and California and a few provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, as well as all of Australia and New Zealand - GDL has been shown to decrease collision rates for teen drivers.

Still, arguments against GDL persist; it's a matter of available time of parents (or lack thereof), cost of insurance during the process, and conflicting data as to its overall effectiveness. The problem there is that each State and Province gets to set its own GDL rules, if any, as do insurance companies with their proprietary "risk assessment" spread sheets that may or may not cut some slack based on a learner's attentiveness to a GDL program while also factoring drivers ed classes and local geography that may or may not include more than one stop sign within an hour's drive.

While GDL is more or less the norm across North America, there's still a great deal of variation in how stringent the learning periods really are, how well they're defined, how they're enforced, and how parents and teens are educated about how to use the GDL approach to improve teen driving safety.

So for all intents and purposes, the GDL approach - which, again, is proven to lower accident rates for teen drivers - is still being treated as an experiment, not the de facto standard for helping teens become safe drivers and, by extension, improving the overall safety of everyone on the road - i.e. "the public."

There is a glimmer of hope - for the US, at least. The Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection (STANDUP) act, would, in fact, set a national standard. It should come as no surprise, however, that the legislation has stalled and has been somewhat lacking in support for more than two years...
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Newsroom Notes
A case for GDL as a national standard

File Under:
Safety, Automotive, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
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