What is the Graduated Driver License program?

First implemented in Michigan and Florida in the mid-1990s and enacted into law in the Garden State in 2001, New Jersey’s Graduated Driver License or GDL program is a three-step process (permit, probationary or restricted license, and basic or full license) designed to help teen drivers gain experience and build skill while minimizing those things that cause them the greatest risk -- distraction caused by passengers and the use of cell phones and other electronic devices, as well as driving late at night and riding unbelted.  

What are the three-steps of New Jersey’s Graduated Driver License program?

Under NJ’s GDL program, teens may obtain a permit (the first step) at 16 years of age after successfully passing a written test and completing a minimum of 6-hours of behind the wheel training.  The permit allows a teen to practice driving in New Jersey only when supervised by an adult (21+) who has held a New Jersey driver’s license for a minimum of three years.  A permit holder may not drive between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and only one other passenger, in addition to the supervising driver, may be in the vehicle. 

Once a teen is at least 17 years of age and has held a permit for at least 6 months, s/he may take the behind the wheel driving test to obtain a probationary license (the second step of the GDL program).   This allows the teen to drive without supervision, but with the following provisions:

  • may only transport one passenger (unless a parent or guardian is in the vehicle or the passengers are the teen’s dependent children)
  • may not drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. (exemption provided for work and religious obligations, with proper documentation)
  • may not use any hand-held or hands-free electronic devices (iPods and GPS devices may be used if they are set-up prior to driving)
  • everyone in the vehicle must be properly restrained in seat belts or car seats (if under 8 years of age or less than 80 pounds)
  • must display a red GDL decal on the front and rear license plate

Any violation of these provisions carries a $100 fine, but no motor vehicle points.

Once a teen is at least 18 years of age and has held a probationary license for at least 12 months, s/he may return to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Agency to obtain a basic or unrestricted license (step three of the GDL program).  It’s the teen’s responsibility to do this; teens who fail to change their license continue to drive under the GDL program and may be stopped and cited by a police officer if they’re violating the provisions listed above. 

Why does New Jersey need a Graduated Driver License program?

Teens are at the highest risk of being involved in a car crash during their first 12 to 24 months of driving. 

New Jersey’s GDL program helps teen drivers build skill while minimizing those things that cause them the greatest risk (as noted above) during this critical time period.  New Jersey has one of the most progressive and effective GDL programs in the country thanks to an older licensing age (full license is not permitted until at least age 18); a restriction on passengers, nighttime driving and the use of electronic devices; and the requirement that all vehicle occupants be properly restrained in seat belts or car seats. 

Why are passengers dangerous for teen drivers?

The number one cause of teen crashes in New Jersey is distraction/inattention.  While cell phones and texting clearly pose a danger for teens, passengers also distract novice drivers.  A teen driver is twice as likely to be killed in a crash while carrying just one passenger regardless of whether the passenger is a friend or a sibling.  Allow two or three passengers in the vehicle and the crash risk increases to 158% and 207%, respectively.  Under New Jersey's GDL program, a probationary license holder may have just one passenger in the vehicle unless s/he is accompanied by a parent or guardian or the passengers are the teen driver’s dependent children. 

Why is nighttime driving risky for teen drivers?

Driving at night is dangerous for motorists regardless of experience.  But when it comes teens drivers, it’s particularly deadly -- 40% of teen driver fatal crashes occur after 9 p.m.  While New Jersey requires both permit and probationary license holders to be off the road between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., parents are encouraged to set earlier curfews during the first months of non-supervised driving (probationary licensure).

May teen drivers use hands-free cell phones?

No.  Under New Jersey’s GDL program, teens holding a permit or probationary license may not use  hand-held or hands-free electronic devices such as Bluetooth or in-vehicle communication or navigation systems (iPods and GPS devices are allowed if they are set-up prior to vehicle operation and not adjusted while the teen driver is en route).  That’s because research clearly shows that both hand-held and hands-free devices cause not only manual, but cognitive(mental), audible and visual distraction. 

Why are teens required to display a decal under the GDL program and doesn’t the requirement put teens at risk?

Being able to identify a teen driver holding a probationary license is the single most vexing issue for those responsible for enforcing the provisions of the GDL program.  For the GDL program to be effective, enforcement of the provisions outlined above (i.e., too many passengers, driving late at night, while using a cell phone, improperly restrained) is key. Requiring a GDL holder to display  a decal has been a long-held and highly effective practice in Canada, the U.K., Australia, Germany, Japan and many other countries.  Contrary to what has been reported in the press, police are not arbitrarily stopping vehicles and harassing teens displaying decals (they must have probable cause to make a stop) and an April 2011 report issued by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General found that teen safety has not been negatively impacted by the requirement. Additionally, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia analysis of New Jersey citation and crash data found that enforcement of the GDL provisions increased 14% and crashes involving 17-year-old probationary drivers fell 9% (3,200 fewer teens crashed) in the first two years following enactment of the decal requirement.     

May a GDL license holder drive in another state and which GDL law is predominant?

Since states have reciprocal licensing agreements, a New Jersey GDL license holder may drive in another state.  However, the individual is required to adhere to both New Jersey's GDL requirements, which also cover licensing, training and testing, as well as the GDL restrictions in the state he/she is driving. Verifying GDL restrictions (which may be covered in more detail on State Highway Safety Office websites), in advance of driving in another state is strongly recommended since they may and often do differ. If a GDL holder is stopped by a law enforcement official and is not in compliance with that state's GDL restrictions, the officer has the discretion to issue a warning or citation for the violation. Recognizing that the license holder's safety is paramount, it is recommended that parents always enforce the more stringent GDL restrictions regardless of where the teen is driving.

For New Jersey's neighboring states, consult the detailed GDL driving restrictions for New York City, Long Island, and upstate New York, which have individual requirements for each region, Pennsylvania, and Delaware (see "GDL Learner's  Pemit Law" link).

New York City has the strictest GDL driving restrictions. A GDL driver with a permit may drive in New York City ONLY with a parent, guardian or driving instructor and ONLY if there are dual controls (dual brakes) installed in the car. However, a GDL driver with a probationary (intermediate) license is NOT permitted to drive anywhere in New York City, even if there is a parent or adult supervisor in the car.

For more information on individual state's GDL laws check out this blog site that expounds the laws for each state:  DriveUSAonPermit.

How can I help a teen driver be safe?

Research clearly shows that Graduated Driver Licensing is the most effective tool for addressing teen crash risk because it helps novice drivers build skill while minimizing risk. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach/advisor, older sibling, neighbor or friend, learning about and enforcing the GDL program is important.  Parents, in particular, play a crucial role in teen driver safety.  Teens who report having parents that set rules and monitor their activities in a helpful supportive way are half as likely to crash, 71% less likely to drive intoxicated, 30% less likely to use a cell phone when driving, and 50% more likely to buckle up.  By partnering with parents, you can help to ensure that they know about and leverage the proven principles of GDL so their teens gain skill and become good drivers for life.

Where can I learn more about NJ’s GDL program?

The Coalition has developed an online GDL tool kit that is filled with free, downloadable resources (i.e., fact sheets, brochures, videos, posters and PowerPoint presentations) designed to facilitate greater awareness and understanding of the GDL program at home and in the community.