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Statement Before the Illinois Task Force on Graduated Driver Licensing, Chicago, IL
Robert L. Sumwalt
Chicago, IL

Good morning. Thank you, Secretary of State White, for inviting the National Transportation Safety Board to participate in your Task Force on Graduated Driver Licensing. Your effort provides a valuable opportunity to look beyond the existing graduated driver licensing system in Illinois to see what are the next steps we must take to further reduce needless highway crashes and fatalities involving teen drivers. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about the Safety Board’s recommendations. I would like to note that Safety Board staff member Steve Blackistone is with me today both to support me and to participate as a member of the Task Force. This may be the first time that a Safety Board Vice Chairman has testified before Safety Board staff.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation crashes, determine their probable cause and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. In our 39-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

In spite of the revolutionary changes in driver licensing practices that have been adopted in recent years and substantial reductions in teen motor vehicle fatalities in most States, teen drivers continue to be involved in an alarming number of crashes. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers today, accounting for more than 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20 year olds. Young drivers age 15 through age 20 make up less than 7 percent of the driving population, but compose more than 13.5 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. Further, more than 21 percent of all highway fatalities occur in crashes involving teen drivers.

The Safety Board made a series of recommendations beginning in 1993 addressing this problem. I am pleased to note that Illinois has adopted most of the Safety Board’s graduated licensing recommendations, including implementing a 3-phase driver licensing system with nighttime, passenger and cell phone use restrictions. However, we must now consider what more can be done to help thousands of young drivers in Illinois to adjust to their new driving responsibilities. What can we do to help more teenagers and their parents recognize the risks, and address them?

Graduated Driver Licensing

Illinois has a generally strong graduated licensing system, but there are several ways in which it could be further strengthened. The current nighttime restriction does not take effect until 11:00 p.m. on weekdays, and midnight on weekends. However, the number of fatalities involving teen drivers is greater in the 9:00 p.m. – midnight period than it is after midnight. North Carolina has had a far greater impact with its nighttime driving restriction that begins at 9:00 p.m.

It is critical that new drivers obtain as much experience as possible under the safest possible conditions. Thus, we were pleased to see that Illinois increased the supervised driving requirement from 25 to 50 hours. However, the minimum learner’s permit holding period still is only 3 months. Extending it to at least 6 months would provide greater experience, regardless of the level of effort that parents put into supervised driving.

Additionally, a young driver should not be allowed to progress to the next stage until completing 6 consecutive months without an at-fault collision or traffic violation. And, it is essential to the latter requirement that it include all violations, including first violations that now typically are subject to court supervision. Further, violations of the safety belt requirements should be reported, as a means of further promoting the importance of seat belt use. Although overall safety belt use in Illinois is 88 percent, your highway safety office reports that belt use by teens is far lower – a self-reported 77 percent. Indeed, the seat belt use rate is lower among teenagers than any other age group.

Driver Education

Driver education has been available since the 1930s and, intuitively, should improve driving safety. But, in fact, little consensus exists on the benefits of driver education and training, what it should entail, and how it should be delivered. This led the Safety Board to convene a 2-day public forum in October 2003 to survey the current state of novice driver education and training, and what can be done to improve it.

In 1949, the National Education Association’s National Commission on Safety Education recommended 30 hours of classroom education and 6 hours of behind-the-wheel training (30 + 6) as a standard for driver education and training. The commission derived these recommendations based on a compromise between the time needed to teach driver education and the time funded and feasible for teaching driving skills during the school day.

Despite the dramatic changes in vehicles, highways, and the driving environment over the past 56 years, the approach to driver education has changed little. Many schools still regard the 30 + 6 formula as the standard. But, researchers have shown that driver education accomplished in 30 hours of classroom and 6 hours of behind-the-wheel training cannot reasonably be expected to transform a nondriver into a safe driver.

A demonstration project conducted in DeKalb County, Georgia, from 1978 to 1981, comparing the effects of two driver education programs and no driver education, has long been the basis for statements regarding the effectiveness of driver education. Several analyses and re-analyses of the DeKalb study have been conducted. The majority of the studies found either no effect or different or conflicting effects. The Safety Board concluded that the formula of 30 hours of classroom training followed sequentially by 6 hours of behind-the-wheel training was determined arbitrarily and is probably inadequate to teach teenagers the skills necessary to drive safely on today’s roadways.

Although the various approaches to driver education may have aspects that provide novice drivers with some of the training and skills needed to drive safely, no systematic evaluation has been conducted to determine which components are effective in teaching safe driving skills. Consequently, educators and commercial driving schools have little or no reliable guidance to follow in designing an appropriate curriculum or in establishing requirements for classroom or behind-the-wheel instruction.

Teenagers vary greatly in their learning capacity, learning style, maturity, and risk-taking behavior. Driver education and behind-the-wheel training need to accommodate those who learn visually, those who learn by listening, and those who learn by doing. Having students only read a book or listen to a lecture, as many classroom curricula do, does not take into consideration the varying ways in which students learn.

Thus, developing comprehensive driver education and behind-the-wheel training curricula requires an understanding not only of traffic safety, but also of how teenagers learn. In the absence of such an understanding, educators can lose the opportunity to teach teenagers how to drive safely. Furthermore, as is reflected in their behavior, teenagers are extremely susceptible to peer pressure. Understanding this pressure and other aspects of the cultural and societal pressures that affect their behavior could help educators design curricula that take into account and compensate for risks associated with this environment.

Therefore, the Safety Board recommended that NHTSA, in conjunction with the U. S. Department of Education, determine which driver training methods result in increased safety for novice drivers. Further, the Board has encouraged them to solicit input from driver education providers during this effort. These best practices should be incorporated into a model driver education and training curriculum.

The majority of States that require both classroom and behind-the-wheel training do not require that they be taken concurrently. Most classroom training in driver education takes place when a novice driver has had little or no experience behind the wheel to relate concepts learned to real-life driving. Students listen to a lecture, but often do not practice the lesson until weeks or even months later. Michigan, in cooperation with NHTSA, is studying the effect of providing two-phased classroom education, which inserts the behind-the-wheel training between the two classroom phases. No studies to date have shown whether students’ driving skills benefit from concurrent classroom and behind-the-wheel training.

Setting a standard sequence for classroom and behind-the-wheel education in conjunction with graduated licensing qualifications could guide educators and trainers in providing optimum training to teach the majority of novice drivers to become safe drivers. Thus, the Safety Board recommended that NHTSA, in cooperation with the Department of Education, determine the optimum sequencing, in conjunction with graduated licensing qualifications, for educating teenagers on safe driving skills, both in the classroom and behind the wheel.

Essentially, the Safety Board asked that, as a nation, we start over to create from scratch a new and effective driver education program. States such as Illinois can play a key role in these developmental efforts. For example, the California Legislature has considered a proposal to create a commission with the mission of reviewing and recreating driver education. We’re hopeful that it will be approved next year. Illinois could consider a similar review of driver education.

As this task force considers how to proceed, the Safety Board encourages you to work cooperatively with NHTSA, perhaps offering to serve as a test site for driver education research and evaluation efforts or for a new driver education program. Through such participation, Illinois will help highlight its driver education needs and the perspective of the States.

Underage Alcohol Impaired Driving

At your last task force hearing, law enforcement officials powerfully illustrated both the progress that has been made, and the continuing problem of impaired driving by teenagers. The risk for this group is especially great since they are both inexperienced drivers and inexperienced drinkers. Nationwide, 24 percent of 15-20 year old drivers who were killed in a traffic crash had a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or greater in 2004. This is the illegal BAC for adult drivers. Teen drivers shouldn’t be drinking at all. During the last 5 years, at least 21 percent of the teen drivers involved in fatal crashes in Illinois have had a positive blood alcohol concentration. This is not acceptable, and we must find ways to further reduce both underage alcohol consumption, and impaired driving.

The minimum drinking age law in Illinois is generally strong, but appears to have one significant gap. While it is illegal for persons under age 21 to purchase alcohol, there is no prohibition on the attempt to purchase. The Safety Board has recommended that minimum drinking age laws prohibit the attempt to purchase alcohol. I urge that the task force include this in its recommendations.

With a comprehensive minimum drinking age law in place, plus your existing zero alcohol tolerance law, it seems that the problem of underage drinking and driving may be best addressed through a variety of enforcement, public information, and alternative activities programs. For example, in the Board’s 1993 report on youth highway crashes, we suggested point of sale enforcement programs directed at both underage buyers and sellers, selective enforcement on both underage purchase and drinking and driving, public information programs, and comprehensive community programs for teens that are alcohol-free (such as the Drawing the Line program in Montgomery County, Maryland).

Mr. Secretary, I commend you for recognizing that too many teens are being killed on our highways, and for establishing this task force to identify the next steps that Illinois can take to reduce this death toll. I hope that you, and all task force members, will commit to making the changes needed to reduce these tragedies. We, at the Safety Board will do whatever we can to help you.