Public: Sixteen Too Young to Drive

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

Parents cautiously optimistic

"Young novice drivers are at significant risk on the road because they lack both the judgment that comes with maturity and the skill that comes with experience." Few would argue with this statement from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But at what age are young people mature enough to exercise good judgment on the road?

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of U.S. adults, conducted in December 2004*, shows the majority of Americans (61%) say people should be 17 years old or older before they are permitted to get a driver's license; just 37% say 16 or younger. The plurality of Americans, 42%, think 18 is the right age. These findings represent a significant shift in public opinion from a decade ago. 

Opinion Shifts in Favor of Older Drivers

Not long ago, many more Americans than do so today thought 16 was the appropriate age at which teens should be able to get a driver's license. In 1995, 46% said 16 was the right age, 30% said 18, and 23% mentioned other ages.

What took place over the last 10 years that might have influenced that shift? During the 1990s, faced with rising accident rates among teens, most states implemented some variation of a Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) law. The laws vary in strength from state to state, but all encompass a basic principle -- delaying a full-fledged, unrestricted driver's license, while prolonging the learning process under less risky conditions until drivers turn 18 (see "Phasing in Teen Drivers" in Related Items). The publicity the GDL laws generated may have made more Americans aware of the dangers of driving too young.

Women Cautious About Young Drivers

While 42% of men think 16 is the right age to begin driving, just 29% of women agree. Women are somewhat more cautious about young drivers than men are; nearly half of women (47%) say 18 is the right age for a driver's license, as do 37% of men.

Younger Drivers on Young Drivers

Young adults -- those between age 18 and 29, who were likely most recently licensed as drivers -- are more inclined to say licenses should be given at age 18 (43%) than age 16 (36%).

Parents Weigh In

Most parents with children between the ages of 12 and 18 seem to view the prospect of their children driving with cautious optimism. When asked to name the appropriate age for teens to begin driving, one might expect many parents to say, "40 sounds about perfect." But just 11% of parents with children between the ages of 12 and 18 say the right age to get a driver's license is "21 or older." An equal percentage of parents with children in this age range say 16 (37%) and 18 (37%) is the appropriate age to become a licensed driver.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,002 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 17-19, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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