Pardon the pun, but it looks like Alberta’s Graduated Driver Licensing program is a smashing success.
Introduced three years ago, Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) is celebrating its third anniversary this spring amid a chorus of cheers for what it has accomplished so far, as well as requests from stakeholders that it be beefed up so it can be even better down the road.
For those who might not remember the debate in its original form, GDL was introduced to save lives, and money.
It probably won’t surprise even the most casual observer to learn that new drivers are among the most vulnerable on Alberta roads. According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, drivers aged 15 to 19 represent only 13 per cent of licensed drivers in this country, yet they account for 25 per cent of all driver deaths and injuries. Historically in Alberta, one in every five new drivers is involved in a collision during their first two years behind the wheel.
No mystery why. Like golf, computer games and knitting, practice makes perfect. The more experience you have doing something, the better you become at it, and driving is no exception. Of course, the big difference between operating a motor vehicle and playing golf is that the worst that can happen if you mis-hit a golf ball is you might lose it in the water. Make a mistake piloting a two-tonne vehicle travelling 100 km/h down a highway and it might be you that has to be fished out of the drink.
So the logic behind GDL was simple: Create a safer and more controlled environment for new drivers. That way they learn the necessary skills through regulated on-the-road experience – and plenty of practice – before becoming full-fledged drivers, thereby reducing their chances of getting into the kinds of collisions that have traditionally claimed the lives of about 100 Alberta drivers aged 15 to 24 annually.
Alberta’s Graduated Driver’s Licence, which is marking its third anniversary, is a two-stage process young drivers must follow in order to obtain a full licence.
GDL in Alberta is currently a two-stage process. In the first stage, potential drivers earn a Class 7 (learner’s) licence after passing a written test and vision examination. With this licence in hand, drivers can operate a motor vehicle from 5 a.m. to midnight, but only when the passenger seat is occupied by a fully licensed, non-probationary driver aged 18 or older. There can be no more passengers than seat belts, and licences get pulled if drivers rack up eight demerit points (as opposed to the typical 15). And finally, there is zero tolerance for alcohol; get caught with booze on the breath and drivers are back to square one, following a 30-day suspension.
Drivers must hold their learner’s licence for at least one year, after which they move on to Stage 2, the probationary period, which lasts another two years. First hurdle here is the standard Alberta road test. Pass this and drivers receive a probationary licence that permits driving 24 hours a day, without an accompanying adult driver. However, the zero-tolerance rule about alcohol stays in effect, as does the promise to pull the licence after eight demerit points.
So far so good, says everybody involved.
“I fought for graduated licensing for years,” says Jeanette Espie, executive director for the Office of Traffic Safety, Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation.
“I have two teenagers myself, one of whom has gone through the program, and I think it’s fabulous. I really believe it’s saving lives – here and internationally. I’m also behind enhancing it year by year.”
Sgt. Regan James, who heads up specialized traffic operations for the Edmonton police, also thinks GDL has been a smart play: “There are some great parameters there.”
Alberta’s approved driver examiners, the folks who administer the new advanced road test drivers can take after their two-year probationary period is up, are also bullish. “I’ve noticed an improvement; they seem to be more aware of what’s happening around them,” says Joe Bilinski, who has been a driving instructor and an examiner in the province for the past 15 years.
Unfortunately, says Liz Owens, manager of collision research and analysis for Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation, an “effectiveness evaluation” on the Alberta experience won’t be available for at least another year. It’s going to take that long to compare GDL collision and infraction data with that of a control group monitored during the three-year period that preceded GDL.
However, other jurisdictions do have this data, and it’s convincing. In Nova Scotia, collisions for 16-year-old drivers were down a whopping 37 per cent a mere three years into that province’s GDL program. In the state of Iowa, moving violations and collisions were down 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively after only the first year. In North Carolina, crashes for 16-year-olds dropped 34 per cent following the introduction of GDL.
So does that mean it’s time to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done and get on to other things?
No, says Scott Wilson, AMA’s policy development and promotion manager. We now have in place “a very good first step,” but other studies indicate that with a few enhancements Alberta’s GDL could be even better. These studies, says Wilson, are leading AMA to support three changes based on the research data available:
• Prohibit the use of on-board wireless communication devices, hand-held or otherwise, for all drivers enrolled in GDL
• Introduce a nighttime recreational driving restriction for Stage 2 (probationary drivers)
• Prohibit probationary drivers from carrying passengers (except family members)
Some of this may sound draconian, but Wilson says the research is sound. For example, a sizeable body of research now supports the argument that nighttime
driving is dangerous for new drivers. U.S. data indicates that the fatal crash rate for 16-year-olds is four times higher at night, which also happens to be a time of day when some young drivers are also engaging in activities that exacerbate the situation, such as consuming alcohol or speeding. Just ask Sgt. James.
“I think it would be a positive step,” he says. “I’ve attended way too many fatal collision investigations that occur at three in the morning where alcohol is involved, the driver is 18 years old and speed is a factor.”
What those nighttime restrictions should be is still a matter of debate. Wilson says the best practices report generated by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation argues that the maximum benefit is realized by prohibiting driving between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Obviously that could be a real burden for sober, law-abiding new drivers who have jobs requiring night driving, but Wilson says a compromise could be worked out; the legislation could be tailored to include exemptions for essential driving.
The evidence pointing to wireless communication devices as a contributing factor in collisions is also credible. Consider a recent study by the Ford Motor Company. Ford has developed what it calls a VIRtual Test Track simulator that monitors and analyzes driving behaviours. Without distractions, both adults and teens had a three per cent miss rate in identifying potentially dangerous events, such as a car quickly changing lanes in front of them. However, when the same test was run again with participants using a cellphone at the same time, the adult miss rate rose to 13 per cent while teen driver distraction levels rose more than 50 per cent. For similar reasons, best practices suggest that probationary drivers be prohibited from carrying passengers. “The more passengers you have, the more distractions,” says Wilson.
Is the Alberta government entertaining any of these suggestions? Jeanette Espie, of the Office of Traffic Safety, says there’s every probability that the recommendations will at least serve as discussion points at an upcoming series of government meetings to bring safety issues to the attention of the province’s interim infrastructure and transportation minister, Ty Lund.
“There will probably be a discussion of GDL,” says Espie, “though there’s no guarantee.” However, she adds, “the government as a whole really supported GDL, so I’m fairly confident there will be a couple of GDL questions.
Until such time as changes are made, Scott Wilson has some advice for the families of young or new drivers. Because the vehicles driven by GDL participants are not marked with a big L (learner) or N (novice) the way they are in British Columbia, policing is difficult.
As a result, “the onus of responsibility for enforcing GDL is on parents and families.”