Young driver licensing: Examination of population-level rates using New Jersey’s state licensing database

Abstract Recent surveys have provided insight on the primary reasons why US teens delay licensure but are limited in their ability to estimate licensing rates and trends. State administrative licensing data are the ideal source to provide this information but have not yet been analyzed for this purpose. Our objective was to analyze New Jersey’s (NJ) licensing database to: (1) describe population-based rates of licensure among 17- to 20-year-olds, overall and by gender and zip code level indicators of household income, population density, and race/ethnicity; and (2) examine recent trends in licensure. We obtained records on all licensed NJ drivers through June 2012 from the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission’s licensing database and determined each young driver’s age at the time of intermediate and full licensure. Data from the US Census and American Community Survey were used to estimate a fixed cohort of NJ residents who turned 17 years old in 2006–2007 (n = 255,833). Licensing data were used to estimate the number of these drivers who obtained an intermediate license by each month of age (numerators) and, among those who obtained an intermediate license, time to graduation to full licensure. Overall, 40% of NJ residents—and half of those who ultimately obtained a license by age 21—were licensed within a month of NJ’s minimum licensing age of 17, 64% by their 18th birthday, and 81% by their 21st birthday. Starkly different patterns of licensure were observed by socioeconomic indicators; for example, 65% of 17-year-olds residing in the highest-income zip codes were licensed in the first month of eligibility compared with 13% of residents living in the lowest-income zip codes. The younger an individual obtained their intermediate license, the earlier they graduated to a full license. Finally, the rate and timing of licensure in NJ has been relatively stable from 2006 to 2012, with at most a 1–3% point decline in rates. These findings support the growing body of literature suggesting that teens delay licensure primarily for economic reasons and that a substantial proportion of potentially high-risk teens may be obtaining licenses outside the auspices of a graduated driver licensing system. Finally, our finding of a relatively stable trend in licensure in recent years is in contrast to national-level reports of a substantial decline in licensure rates.