Car crashes are the leading cause of death among American teens. Sixty-one percent of teen passengers are killed while riding with a teen driver. In response to those two statements, most US states and territories have adopted GDL laws. GDL is the acronym for Graduated Driver Licensing. While GDL does not guarantee that your teen will not be involved in or injured in a crash, there are ways to help assess a teen driver’s maturity and experience that can increase her safety.

I am an injury prevention educator for a local hospital teaching youth and parents how to use the GDL components effectively. In an effort to reach more parents with this important information, I share much of what I teach through a series of articles.

If you have a teen eager to learn to drive, becoming familiar with the GDL in your area will be one of the most important laws to understand. However, thinking beyond the GDL requirements and restrictions is essential to increasing the safety of teen drivers. Parents are the key to teen driver safety when they know which “knowledge lock” to open.

GDL focuses on developing the bare minimum of driving skills along with some specific restrictions, but using GDL effectively is more complicated than you might think.

Teenagers want to be good drivers; expect to be good drivers; are more than capable of developing good vehicle operation and driving skills when provided with access to well practiced driving experience, but teaching a teen to drive is not just about desire, vehicle operation, driving skills, and experience.

The complication lies in the fact that a sixteen year old is severely disadvantaged with the conductive piece due to the maturation of the human brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain begins to function around the age of twelve or thirteen, reaching most of its maturity in the mid to late twenties. The brain’s prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for judgment, reason, logic, and decision-making, all of which are necessary for safe driving.

The synapse in a teen’s brain doesn’t wire up the same way as it does in an adult’s brain, which is the answer to why teens say they “don’t know” when a parent asks, “What were you thinking?” ?” Teenagers don’t want to make mistakes, but immature brain development doesn’t always help them make good decisions.

Patterns of maturation of the prefrontal cortex

There are four reasonable expectations for measuring prefrontal cortex maturation to consider before licensing a young person.

  1. Youth who refuse to wear safety equipment when going faster than they can walk or run should not be considered for a license.
  2. Youth who require reminders to complete homework or chores are not mature enough to assume the responsibilities of the driving privilege
  3. Youth with behavior problems need a safe and controlled environment to resolve distress…a vehicle is NOT a safe and controlled environment
  4. Only discharge young people who are successful in keeping the agreements, meaning if they say they will be home by a certain time but don’t call to renegotiate the terms, they are not successful in keeping the agreements.

Considerations for driving requirements beyond vehicle operation

A driver uses approximately 1,500 skills, including perception, observation, interpretation, and anticipation skills, all of which develop in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and are necessary for safe driving.

The reason you find yourself hitting the ‘artificial brake’ when driving with your teen driver is because teens mistakenly believe that the driving environment is the immediate area surrounding the vehicle. Guaranteed… if they saw what you’re reacting to, they’d hit the brakes too! But if they don’t see it, they won’t react. Teenage drivers need to be taught to ‘scan the driving environment’. As you drive, ask them questions about the behavior of the vehicles you observe as a way to help them develop necessary exploration skills. Example: Did you see the sign for that car during the last ten blocks but did a different maneuver?

Provide driving lessons that focus on well practiced experience. ‘Well practiced’ means: To develop a good habit, it must be executed correctly at least twenty-one times in a row.

Most GDL laws have three stages of licensing


  1. Minimum age and duration of the permit
  2. Required Supervised Driving Hours
  3. Intermediate
  4. Minimum age to obtain the license
  5. night driving restriction
  6. passenger restriction

full privilege

It seems easy, but complying with the basics legal the minimum requirements are not suitable for teen drivers. Keep in mind that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Example: Let’s say your state requires a minimum of 100 hours of supervised driving practice when the teen does not take a formal driver’s education class. Let’s say the teen is clocking 99 hours but you’re still in:

  • Hold on to the seat or the handlebars of the arm; panting; Hit the artificial brake
  • Pointing out things like, “I notice you’re driving too close to the car in front of you.”

If you stay with the only one GDL legal requirements and license the young man, who do you think will be pointing things out to you if YOU are not in the vehicle? To measure driving readiness for basic vehicle operation and traffic awareness, work with the young driver until:

  1. You no longer need to point anything
  2. You no longer feel like holding or gasping
  3. You no longer need to hit the artificial brake

Next time: Curfew and passenger restriction

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