Maryland's Stricter Driver's Licensing Program Shows Parent Involvement Improves Performance of Teen Drivers

by Aaron Levin

Driver licensing systems that use a series of steps to acclimate teenage drivers to the road would work better if they were integrated with programs to help parents instruct and advise their children, according to recently released results of an academic study conducted by University of Maryland researchers. The study was commissioned in 2000, just after the state changed its requirements for obtaining a driver's license.

University of Maryland professor Kenneth H. Beck, Ph.D. and his colleagues used the state's recent changeover to an upgraded, graduated licensing system to compare how parents involved themselves with their teens' driver training under each format.

Use of the new Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration Rookie Driver Skills Log and Practice Guide was associated with greater parental restrictions on driving. These restrictions reduce accidents by limiting teen drivers' access to family cars, hours and routes, and driving distance permitted, and requiring parents to know where the teens are going and when they will be back. Teens who were classified as higher-risk drivers or showed other poor driving habits were less likely to report following most or all of the guide.

The researchers surveyed 424 teens and their parents before the licensing change went into effect and another 600 afterward, in 2000. The study appears in the December issue of the journal Health Education & Behavior.

Graduated driver licensing systems, designed to reduce teen driving risks by easing beginning drivers into the experience of operating a car on the road, have been adopted by 35 states and the District of Columbia.

"Graduated licensing programs should include educational components that instruct parents how to regulate the driving of their newly licensed teen," Beck concludes. "Such programs could provide structured guidance on how driving restrictions may be imposed, monitored, enforced and even relaxed over time."

Traditional driver licensing happened in two stages: the learner's permit, followed by full licensing at as early as age 16. Graduated driver licensing adds an intermediate step: a provisional license allowing the teen to drive unsupervised but with some restrictions. Full licensing occurs no earlier than age 18, after a violation-free provisional period.

Maryland was one of the first states to adopt a graduated licensing program in the early 1980s. However, it updated its program in 1999. The state now requires holding a learner's permit for a minimum of four months (compared to as little as two weeks under the old system) and at least 40 hours of parent-supervised practical driving experience. After this preliminary period, and at an age of at least 16 years and one month, the teens are eligible for an 18-month provisional license.

During all this time, parents are supposed to supervise and instruct their children and restrict access to the times and conditions under which the teens can drive.

From the teenagers' point of view, parents instructed them about equally before and after the changeover. However, in some areas, young people got the message better in 2000: They started braking more smoothly. They were less likely to drive aggressively and more likely to avoid other aggressive drivers, not tailgate, anticipate other drivers' actions, obey traffic signs and signals, and deal with distractions.

The teens in 2000 did report that their parents rode with them at least several times a week during the learner's permit phase but said there was not much difference once they were provisionally licensed. Teens reported more overall restrictions on their driving by their parents in 2000. Parents tended to be much more generous in their estimates of how much time they put in to helping train their kids, Beck notes.

Funding for the study was provided by the Maryland State Highway Office of the State Highway Administration.

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This story was published on February 20, 2004.