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Is getting your driver’s licence still a rite of passage for new generations of young drivers?

By: Robyn Robertson & Karen Bowman

Getting your driver’s licence on your 16th birthday has long been a rite of passage for Baby Boomers and GenXers. A licence was the key to freedom and independence, and it represented an important step towards adulthood. Of course, at that time getting a driver’s licence was relatively easy; pass a knowledge test, practice the basics with a parent, or an instructor (particularly if the parent approach resulted in one too many arguments). And then take the road test…as many times as needed in fact. Driver education courses were optional and graduated driver licensing programs weren’t even a blip on the horizon.

Fast forward 30 years and it’s a whole new landscape for young drivers in many ways. Driver education courses are crammed with new material about issues we never really thought about like distraction, drug-impairment, stunt-driving, and fatigue. Graduated driver licensing programs have a multitude of requirements and involve two or three different levels to progress through over a specified period of time, and some programs also include an advanced exit test. This means the whole process of getting your licence simply takes much longer with a lot more restrictions (like no highway driving, no driving in late evening hours, and no young passengers) along the way.

The technology of vehicles has also changed dramatically with the development of advanced driver assistance systems. Today, vehicles have camera and sensor technologies, a more complex center stack console, and even combined function safety technologies (like lane departure and forward collision warning systems). When we learned to drive all those years ago, the only sounds we had to be familiar with included the horn, the ticking of the turn signal, tuning the radio (yes, manually tuning), and that grinding noise the brakes made when you hit them hard. Nowadays, it’s a symphony of beeps, buzzes and alarms of various sorts to warn of some impending hazard.

The sheer responsibility of driving has also become much more pronounced for young drivers in the last decade. With growing knowledge and awareness of the preventable nature of road crashes, we no longer talk about accidents. This terminology has in many circles become unacceptable. Instead, we talk about road crashes, many of which result from driver error, meaning someone is at fault. As a result, the onus on young drivers, who research shows are most likely to be crash-involved, can be daunting. These factors, combined with the sheer cost of vehicles and insurance (not to mention astronomical and unpredictable fuel costs), have resulted in many teens simply delaying licencing as a strategy to avoid the pressures associated with driving.

Are teens a big part of the road crash problem?

Yes…but they aren’t the only part. Numerous studies over several decades have demonstrated teens have the highest crash risk of any age group, followed by elderly drivers over the age of 75. Young drivers aged 16-24 are over-represented in fatal crashes, meaning they account for a higher proportion of fatal crashes (16%) compared to their proportion in the population (11%). This is due to their young age and inexperience driving, which is a divided attention task involving manual, visual and cognitive elements. Young drivers have more difficulty performing these tasks seamlessly which is why practicing driving in low-risk conditions is so critical to their safety and their success driving. Teens are more impulsive and prone to risk-taking, as well as being slower to recognize hazards and develop hazard perception skills on the road. They also require more concentration to maintain situational awareness of what’s happening around their vehicle as they drive. In fact, research shows teen drivers have a crash risk 2 to 3 times the risk of drivers 20 years and older, and their crash risk is highest in their first six months of licensure. The good news is that as experience is accumulated, these tasks become more second nature and their crash risk declines.

But teens are not the only drivers who take risks on the road. In the past five years data show young drivers in fatal crashes are more likely to wear seatbelts and safety equipment than adults. Teen drivers killed in road crashes are less likely to test positive for alcohol or drugs or to have been speeding than adults. However, they are more likely to test positive for cannabis and to be distracted and fatigued.

 As such, new laws and road safety interventions often begin with a focus on young drivers, in part because of the risk they pose, and in part, because their young age and the presence of young driver programs make it easier to put these tools in place than it is for adults (….yes, I mean that it’s not me…it’s you cohort of drivers).

Are driver education and graduated driver licencing programs effective?

Absolutely yes! Modern driver education programs based on the latest research indicate teens completing a well-designed driver education program have 5-15% fewer collisions and more than 40% fewer violations. Key features of these programs are more practice driving hours and more parental involvement. There is also a wealth of research evaluating graduated driver licensing programs. These programs tend to have larger effects in the first phase compared to smaller effects in the second phase because the first phase is restricted to the lowest-risk conditions as teens practice. Some of the most effective elements of these programs are passenger restrictions and nighttime driving restrictions, and parents play a critical role in enforcing these conditions as their teens learn to drive.


In light of concerns about the environmental impact of vehicles, should teens be licenced?

Yes, because the next generation of teens, otherwise known as Gen Alpha, (born 2010-2025) will probably be among some of the most socially aware and environmentally conscious people given the current turmoil in the state of the world. Concern for the environment has increasingly become a hallmark of young generations which is not surprising since they will be the most impacted by environmental problems created by those who came before them. They will also be the most technologically savvy generation in some respects because they can reap the benefits of safer and increasingly automated vehicles, more alternative transportation options, and the ease of being present using communications technologies without having to be physically present. More importantly, they have the opportunity to make better choices than past generations when it comes to transportation because we know more today than we did decades ago.

While the world has changed a lot since many of us first began to drive, the driver’s licence continues to be a critical feature of independence and freedom. It provides better access to educational and employment opportunities, and exposes young people to new environments and new ways of living. In light of the tremendous barriers currently facing young people when it comes to post-secondary debt, the cost of housing, and the sheer cost of living, it is more important than ever that young people learn to drive.

Moreover, what we can offer them is much better driver training and programs in combination with more evidenced-based policies and collaborative approaches as they gain experience. Collectively, it’s possible to better prepare the next generation of drivers to be safer than us, and this is perhaps one of the most tangible things we can do to reduce our road crash problem.

Tune in to TIRF TiPS – Why Are Young People Waiting Longer To Get Their Licence? In this episode of TIRF TiPS, Police Constable Sean Shapiro and TIRF President & CEO Robyn Robertson discuss reasons why young people are waiting longer to get their driver’s licence.

#MySafeRoadHome blog co-authors: Robyn Robertson, TIRF President & CEO and Karen Bowman, Director, Drop It And Drive®(DIAD) program, work collaboratively as co-authors, drawing from Robyn’s breadth of knowledge on topics alongside Karen’s blogging background and experience leading the DIAD program since 2010. Robyn is the author of TIRF’s knowledge translation model, is well-versed in implementation strategies and operational practices across several sectors. To date, the DIAD program has been delivered to over 60,000 youth and workers across North America.

Source documents and resources:

Driving over the life course: The automobility of Canada’s Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boomer and Greatest Generations’s_Millennial_Generation_X_Baby_Boomer_and_Greatest_Generations

TIRF’s Canadian Coalition on Distracted Driving fact sheet, Let’s Talk About Crashes from the CCDD E-hub, Education, Tools & Resources section

Isler, R.B., Starkey, N.J., and Williamson, A.R. (2009). Video-based road commentary training improves hazard perception of young drivers in a dual task. Accident Analysis and Prevention.41: 445-452.

Mayhew, D.R., Simpson, H.M., and Pak, A (2003). Changes in collision rates among novice drivers during the first months of driving. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 35 (5): 683-691.

Mayhew, D. R. and Simpson, H. M. (2002). The safety value of driver education and training. Injury Prevention, 8 (Suppl. II): ii3-ii8

Mayhew, et. al, (2014). Evaluation of Beginner Driver Education Programs: Studies in Manitoba and Oregon, Traffic Injury Research Foundation, Ottawa, Canada

Shell, Newman, Córdova-Cazar & Heese (2015). Driver Education and Teen Crashes and Traffic Violations in the First Two Years of Driving in a Graduated Licensing System

From Gen Z to the silent generation, September 2020, Journal of Transport & Health 18:100894, DOI:10.1016/j.jth.2020.100894

Williams, A.F. (2003). Teenage drivers: Patterns of risk. Journal of Safety Research 34 (n1 supp): 5-15; McCartt, A.T., Shabanova, V.I., & Leaf, W.A. (2003). Driving experience, crashes and traffic citations of teenage beginning drivers. Accident Analysis and Prevention 35: 311-320

Related topics and resources:

David Bird

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