Life in the Fast Lane: Graduated Driver Licensing and Risky Behavior among Teens

Tuesday, June 14, 2016: 1:35 PM
F45 (Huntsman Hall)

Author(s): Laura Argys; Melinda Pitts; Thomas Mroz

Discussant: Christopher Carpenter

Parents, policy makers, and educators have long been concerned about adolescent behaviors that place their health, educational attainment and future productivity at risk.  Economists have more recently begun to focus on understanding the degree to which adolescents respond to changes in costs and policies designed to curb these behaviors.  Activities that can have long-term consequences, such as substance use, premarital sexual activity, delinquent behaviors and unsafe driving, are typically initiated during teen years and their intensity often increases throughout adolescence.  Although research suggests that parents underestimate the extent to which their children engage in undesirable behaviors, they often address concerns about their children’s tendencies toward risk-taking by acting as a strict disciplinarian and by providing increased monitoring and supervision of teens.  Such increased parental supervision and reduction in teen autonomy in decision-making has been found to be associated with decreased adolescent sexual activity, safer driving, reductions in delinquent activity, and reductions in substance use.  Assessing the causal impact of restrictions initiated by parents is difficult, however, because parents’ decisions may, in part, be a reflection of their (unobservable) concern for their children’s safety and well-being, resulting in estimates that overstate the impact of restrictions on behavioral outcomes.  On the other hand, parents may impose restrictions on teens in response to poor decision-making or risky tendencies on the part of their child, resulting in a downward bias in estimates of the impact of parental restrictions on teen safety. This paper examines the impact of an exogenous policy that imposes a curfew and restricts passengers in the early stages of driver licensing on risky teen behaviors.   

In response to a high incidence of motor vehicle accidents among teens, states have adopted policies that broadly mandate restrictions on novice teen drivers. Since 1991 all but one state have adopted graduated driver licensing policies that alter teen driving in potentially important ways.   These graduated driver’s license policies have been effective in changing teen driving behavior, resulting in consistent and sizable reductions in fatal accidents.   

By limiting the autonomy and mobility of teens, graduated driver’s licenses (GDLs) also have the potential to contribute to changes in other risky behaviors.  Temporal and geographic variation in the adoption of GDLs are exploited to examine the degree to which teen graduated driver licensing policies have unintended effects of altering other types of risky activities during adolescence.  Specifically, this paper examines whether policies that restrict the number of hours and the number of passengers allowed to accompany teen drivers affect birth rates, sexual activity, alcohol, marijuana and cigarette use and other risky behaviors among teens.  Differences in predicted values from models using both aggregate and individual-level data suggest that restrictions imposed by graduated driver licensing are associated with a decline in sexual activity and teen births, as well as alcohol and cigarette use among drivers ages 16 and 17.   There is little evidence of spillover effects to younger non-driving teens, and only limited effect of a ‘rebound’ to high rates of substance use once the restrictions expire.