Timing of Driver’s License Acquisition and Reasons for Delay among Young People in the United States, 2012

This study investigates the ages at which young people obtain driver’s licenses, as well as reasons for delaying licensure among those who do not obtain a license before turning 18.

August 2013

Suggested Citation

For media inquiries, contact:

Tamra Johnson


Graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems are designed to protect new drivers by limiting their exposure to risk initially and gradually phasing in additional driving privileges as they gain experience. Although numerous studies have shown that GDL has significantly reduced the numbers of 16- and 17-year-old drivers involved, injured, and killed in motor vehicle crashes, the few studies of its effects on 18- and 19-year-olds have produced conflicting results. Some researchers suspect that because most states’ GDL systems only apply to new drivers younger than 18, GDL might encourage young people to wait until age 18 to obtain a license to avoid the requirements and restrictions associated with GDL, resulting in older teenagers having less driving experience and higher crash risk than they would without GDL.

The Situation

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers
  • Despite the traditional view that teens are eager to begin driving as soon as possible, evidence of young adults voluntarily delaying licensure has raised a number of questions in recent years
  • Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) systems – which have reduced 16- and 17- year-old driver crashes – generally do not apply to drivers ages 18 and older
  • Concern persists that if teens are delaying licensure, many may not be covered by GDL protections

New Study

  • Objectives:
    • Determine proportion of teens licensed within 12 months of home state minimum age, and by 18th birthday
    • Investigate reasons for delay (e.g., financial constraints, GDL concerns) and demographic factors (e.g., household income)
  • Methods:
    • Nationally-representative survey of 1,039 persons ages 18-20
    • Online questionnaire (English and Spanish)
  • Questionnaire addressed:
    • Current license status
    • Ages when permit and license were obtained
    • Reasons for delay (19 items; each could be rated a very important reason, somewhat important reason, minor reason, or not a reason)
    • Opinions about driver licensing policies

Key Findings – Licensure Status and Timing of Licensure

  • 44% licensed within 12 months of minimum age in their state
  • 54% licensed before 18th birthday
  • 29% still not licensed at time of survey (12% had learner’s permit)

Key Findings – Factors Associated with Licensure by 18th Birthday

  • Household Income
    • <$20K/year: 25% licensed by age 18
    • >$100K/year: 79% licensed by 18
  • Race/Ethnicity
    • Non-Hispanic white: 67% licensed by 18
    • Non-Hispanic black: 37% licensed by 18
    • Hispanic: 29% licensed by 18

Key Findings – Self-Reported Reasons for Delay

  • Biggest reasons for delay were not having a car (44%), ability to get around without driving (39%), cost of gas (36%), cost overall (36%), and “just didn’t get around to it” (35%)
  • Fewer than one in four cited reasons related to GDL and driving restrictions

Key Findings – Opinions about Driver Licensing Policies

  • 77% support restrictions on novice drivers carrying teen passengers (in general)
    • 12% say zero should be allowed; 32% say one
  • 77% support night-time driving restrictions (in general)
    • 51% say these should start at 10PM or earlier
  • 28% support requiring all new drivers, regardless of age, to first obtain a restricted license
  • Nearly all (96%) believe age 16 is the youngest a teen should be able to get a license that allows independent driving; more than half (58%) believe it should be 17


  • Most teens don’t get licensed right away
  • At least 36% of drivers will get licensed outside GDL provisions
  • Most who delay licensure say this is due to cost, financial constraints, or lack of opportunity or interest
  • Despite speculation that teens may be delaying licensure to avoid the restrictions imposed by GDL, relatively few cite this as a reason for their decision
  • Even if GDL isn’t the main reason for licensure delay, significant numbers of novice drivers are likely not exposed to GDL protections because of the delay

Suggested Citation

For media inquiries, contact:

Tamra Johnson


Brian C. Tefft

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Allan F. Williams

Jurek G. Grabowski