More teens have been waiting to get their first driver's license since the start of the recession, a trend that could undercut state efforts to reduce deaths of young drivers.
Specifically, safety experts are concerned about the effectiveness of graduated driver's license laws now in place in every state.
Drivers typically start off with a learner's permit, which allows them to drive with adult supervision. After reaching a certain age and passing a driving test, they can get a license to drive on their own. States generally bar 16- and 17-year-olds from driving at night or with other passengers, until the drivers reach a certain age or experience level. Most states also impose tougher restrictions on using cell phones for young drivers.
Except in New Jersey, those restrictions do not apply to drivers who are 18 or older, even if they are inexperienced drivers who just received their licenses.
“We certainly have a concern that roughly half of new teen drivers aren't benefitting from learning in the (graduated driver's license) process, which has been shown to have a major reduction in crashes for youngsters,” said Justin McNaull, director of state relations for AAA, the automobile organization.
Only 44 percent of teenagers said they got their license within a year of when they first became eligible for one, according to a recent survey for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. By the time they turned 18, only 54 percent said they had a license.
Safety experts credit the graduated driver's licenses, which states began adopting in the mid-1990s, and the recent recession, when fewer people were driving, for reducing teen deaths in traffic accidents.
Deaths of teen drivers dropped by half between 2000 and 2010. But fatalities of teen drivers increased in the two years since, as the economy has started to pick up. More people drive when times are good, as they travel to jobs and have money to pay for car payments, insurance and gas. As people drive more, they also have more accidents.
Car crashes are still the leading cause of death for American teenagers.
In the AAA survey, the most popular reasons teens gave for not getting their licenses sooner were that they did not have a car; they could get around without driving; and that gas or driving was too expensive.
AAA researchers said state rules limiting when young motorists can drive did not seem to play a major role in teens' later starts. Of the 19- and 20-year-olds in the survey who did not get their licenses by age 18, only a third obtained theirs by the time they turned 19.
“These results suggest that most minority and low-income young people do not experience the protective learning environment of (graduated driver's licenses) and thus do not benefit from it,” the researchers wrote.
Now the debate is about what, if any, restrictions to place on new drivers who are older than the ages that require graduated driver's license restrictions.
Older teens face challenges while learning to drive that younger ones do not, said AAA's McNaull. Many move out of their parents' home, which means they do not have experienced drivers around to help them learn how to drive.
Plus, McNaull said, young drivers are far less likely to get into drunk driving accidents, because they have less exposure to alcohol.
“We've seen these good results with (graduated driver's licenses) for 16- and 17-year-olds. We'd really like to find ways that they could be extended across to 18- and 19-year-olds as well,” he said.
But Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, urged lawmakers to be cautious.
“You want to keep the big picture in mind. Until we have really hard data, you don't want to dramatically change your policies and change something that's working based on a poll or two,” he said.
Robert Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, also urged restraint.
“It's way too early. (Legislators) need to sit on their hands,” he said.
Many safety experts are researching whether license restrictions would reduce accidents for new drivers who are 18 or 19, Foss said, because right now there is not enough evidence to show whether graduated driver's licenses for older drivers would help.
In fact, Foss said, it is difficult to determine how much more youth today are putting off getting their licenses than in generations past.
The Federal Highway Administration collects data from states on the age of licensed drivers. The data shows the number of 16- and 17-year-olds with licenses has declined since 2007; more 16-year-olds had licenses in 2001 than any year since.
Foss said other indicators also show a drop in teens getting their licenses at young ages since the beginning of the recession. But he said the FHWA data is unreliable.
The federal government used to define many graduated driver's licenses as learner's permits, because of time restrictions, he said. Foss also said federal officials did not thoroughly vet the information they received from states.
The AAA report also noted the lack of good historic data. The group said people often assume more teens got their licenses at an early age than actually did. Studies for decades have shown that fewer than half of teens obtained driver's licenses in the first year they were eligible, it noted.
“The traditional view has been that teenagers want to get licensed as soon as possible,” the AAA researchers wrote. “In reality, that does not happen.”