Novice Drivers

What You Need

Novice Drivers


To explore the concept of social trade-offs in the context of graduated driver licensing.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

Problem-solving decisions that societies make inevitably involve trade-offs, that is, the giving up of certain benefits in order to obtain other, more desirable benefits. Just such a trade-off is made in graduated driver licensing programs: the privileges of novice drivers are restricted in order to obtain a reduction in accidents caused by inexperience. This lesson will be highly relevant to young people for whom obtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage.

Beginning at an early age, children learn that they often are required to choose between desired outcomes. These simple examples illustrate this point:

  • If you get your own bedroom, you won’t have a companion with you at night when it is dark.
  • If you go to the swimming pool, you might not be home when the popsicle truck drives by.
  • If you want to become good at soccer, you may have to drop out of the softball or lacrosse teams.
  • If you choose French as your elective, you may have to put off the opportunity to learn Spanish.

Through an endless variety of decisions in the contexts of family, play, and school, children become increasingly sophisticated in their understanding of trade-offs.

By the end of middle school, students should have learned that decisions are made by weighing benefits against drawbacks and that the trade-offs may affect different people differently. They should be aware that trade-offs can have long-term as well as short-term consequences and indirect as well as direct consequences. They also should recognize that sometimes the benefits and costs to individuals must be weighed against the benefits and costs to the group at large.

By the end of high school, students should understand that problem solving involves the consideration of many different types of costs and benefits; trade-offs can occur across time, across generations, and over distances. They also should become aware that people who receive benefits and people who bear the cost of those benefits are often not the same. Furthermore, people may have different perceptions about the advantages and disadvantages to any decision. Therefore, compromise is often required in order to obtain a consensus solution. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, pp. 164-166.)

As students discuss graduated driver licensing programs, they may have some difficulty accepting the costs to them (restrictions on new drivers) as a trade-off for benefits to themselves and others (accident reduction). They may therefore discount the correlation researchers have found between novice drivers and accidents and between graduated driver licensing programs and accident reduction. If class discussion leads in this direction, it will touch upon concepts found in these benchmarks:

  • 6D The Human Organism: Learning (9-12) #2
  • 12E Habits of Mind: Critical-Response Skills (9-12) #3

Planning Ahead

Before conducting this lesson, teachers may wish to review the following resources, which are used in abbreviated form in the lesson:


Ask students to help you create a list of factors that contribute to traffic accidents. Answers may include:

  • Bad road design or conditions
  • Poor weather
  • Poor visibility
  • Vehicle malfunction
  • Road congestion
  • Inexperience
  • Speed
  • Poor judgment
  • Immaturity
  • Unfamiliarity with driving rules
  • Recklessness
  • Distractions (passengers, radio, phone, eating, etc.)
  • Driver impairment (alcohol, drugs, sleepiness, illness, etc.)
  • Emotional stages (anger, impatience, “road rage”)

Accept all answers. The purpose is simply to help students conceptualize the many factors that can contribute to traffic accidents.

Then ask students, “Which of these factors are more likely to affect the driving performance of novice drivers compared to experienced drivers?” Place a checkmark next to the items they mention; reasonably, they should cite several.

Next, explain that this lesson takes a look at social trade-offs in the context of graduated driver licensing programs. These are defined as systems for phasing in on-road driving: allowing beginners to get their initial experience under conditions that involve lower risk and introducing them in stages to more complex driving situations. For example, during the intermediate license stage in a graduated system, driving at night or with teenage passengers is prohibited unless there is adult supervision.

Then, use the Graduated Licensing Programs Facts teacher sheet to introduce students to some important research findings.

Next, ask these three questions and allow discussion:

  • Who benefits from graduated driver licensing programs?
  • Who is inconvenienced by such programs?
  • Do the benefits of graduated driver licensing programs outweigh the costs?

Ask students to vote on the last question. Record the tally, because you will have the class revote at the end of the lesson.


Have students use the Novice Drivers student esheet to go to these resources:

As an in-class assignment, have students refer to the second resource to answer questions on page 1 of the Novice Drivers student sheet. Students also may come up with additional cost-benefit considerations besides the ones they find in the article.

As a second part of this assignment, have students study the table, U.S. Licensing Systems for Young Drivers, which they can access through the esheet. They should use page 2 of the Novice Drivers student sheet to record information about the licensing requirements in their own state compared to optimal requirements for graduated licensing as defined by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

You may ask students to complete the Novice Drivers student sheet in groups or individually. A key is provided in the Novice Drivers teacher sheet.

When students have completed this work, lead a discussion of the factors that have led policymakers to investigate ways to reduce risks to young drivers. What specific data has influenced them? Expect answers such as: “Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers,” or “Sixty-two percent of teenage passenger deaths in 2004 occurred in vehicles driven by another teenager.”

Return to the list, which your students had generated in the first discussion, of the factors that contribute to traffic accidents. Ask if they would change any items on the list, expand on them, or add additional factors. Next, discuss the costs and benefits of graduated licensing programs in general and of the licensing program in your state in particular. Ask: “Does our state licensing program reduce these risk factors among young drivers, and if so, which ones?”

Finally, ask students to revote on the question: “Do the benefits of a graduated licensing program outweigh the costs?” Have students explain why they did or did not change their position from the earlier vote.


As homework, direct students to write an essay in support of or against your state’s licensing program. Direct them to make use of the information they collected in the Novice Drivers student sheet, and to refer to the Novice Drivers Essay and Presentation Rubric to guide them in their writing.

An alternative assignment is to have students prepare a three-minute presentation on one of the graphs from the resource Fatality Facts 2005: Teenagers or from some other resource. Refer them to the rubric to guide them in planning their presentation.


You can use these other Science NetLinks lessons to further explore the benchmark idea covered in this lesson:

Students can more deeply explore the scientific research that has investigated the relationships between novice drivers, graduated driver licensing programs, and rates of accident by going to Graduated Driver Licensing Programs and Fatal Crashes of 16-Year-Old Drivers: A National Evaluation. Students may go to this full-length version, from the journal Pediatrics, of the research summary they read for the lesson. Through the footnotes to this article, they can quickly access other related research articles.

Traffic Safety Facts 2004 is a compilation of motor vehicle crash data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the General Estimates System published by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

Traffic Safety Facts 2004: Young Drivers provides charts and graphs on crash, injury, and fatality among young drivers, including data on such factors as motorcycle use, alcohol involvement, and prior driving record and license status. This fact sheet was prepared by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Students may be interested in taking a Safe Driving Quiz.

Funder Info
National Science Foundation
Science NetLinks is proud to have the National Science Foundation as a funder of this project.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards