Economist Speaks on Unintended Harmful Effects of Graduated Drivers Licenses

Julia Herbst

Research Economist and Associate Policy Adviser Melinda Pitts, who works at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, spoke to students and faculty members on Monday, March 12 about her recent paper, “Restricted Driving and Risky Behavior Among Adolescents: The Case of Graduated Driver Licensing.”

In her lecture, which was part of the Economics department’s Danforth-Lewis Speakers Series, Pitts discussed her study’s findings regarding the effects of Graduated Drivers Licensing programs on the rates that teenagers engage in risky behavior such as drinking, smoking cigarettes, engaging in sexual activity or using marijuana.

Since the 1990s, the majority of states have implemented GDL programs that involve a series of stages before full driving privileges can be gained. These steps vary from state to state but generally include an instructional phase where classes must be completed and an intermediate stage where the number of passengers and driving hours of the day are limited.

“Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teens and they die at a rate of three to four times middle-aged drivers,” said Pitts. “Accident risks are at the highest at nights but also when other passengers are present. So GDLs place restrictions on drivers and require more supervision.”

The idea to look at these programs’ unintended consequences was born out of a joke about their effects on teen pregnancy rates made at the end of a long day of presentations at the American Society of Health Economists.

“There was a talk on bicycle helmet laws and one of the unintended consequences of bicycle helmet laws was that kids stopped riding bicycles because they didn’t want to wear the helmets,” said Pitts. “The next paper was on graduated drivers licenses and how… putting restrictions on driving has really … reduced accidents for teens [and driving] fatalities. And so we started joking around [about] what would be some unintended consequences of that and the first thing that popped into our head was, well, let’s look at birth rates and if no longer having [access to] the car really matters … So I would like to say it came out of some great economic debate, but no, it was really a joke. But those are the fun papers — the ones that are kind of catchy.”

Pitts analyzed data on both the aggregate state level and on the individual level from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. Her findings suggest that GDL programs lead to a decline in risky behavior in teens perhaps due to diminished opportunity to engage in unsafe behavior and more limited peer interactions.

For fifth-year double-degree student Aaron Salituro, who attended Monday’s lecture, the idea of a looking at the positive unintended consequences of a policy was appealing.

“It’s always interesting to see spillover in policy,” said Salituro. “Usually when you think of spillover you think of, ‘Well we tried to do this but caused this other problem,’ [but] this is actually a good externality … so it’s always nice to see that.”