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Graduated Drivers License Program: Steps & Requirements

Graduated drivers license program is a system that was designed to pace teenagers who are trying to achieve a drivers license. Instead of granting the applicant with the full driving privileges, the graduated license systems breaks down the licensing process into a number of smaller steps. Each stage of the graduated drivers license system is intended to teach the applicant certain skills and once these skills are mastered, the applicant is moved to the next stage of the program. The final step of the GDL program is a full unrestricted drivers license.

Main Stages of The Graduated License Program

Although graduated license systems vary between states, most of them can be broken down into 3 key stages. Slight variations of this scheme may exist, but the framework usually looks as following:

  1. Learner's permit
  2. Restricted license
  3. Unrestricted driver's license

The learners permit stage usually has the most restrictions and allows for supervised driving only. Restricted license allows teenagers to drive unsupervised, but still has a curfew and passenger restrictions. Unrestricted drivers license grants full driving privileges.

Stage 1 - Learners Permit

This is where it all starts. The minimum age when you can apply for the learner's license varies between states, but it is usually around 15 or 16. At this point, teenagers can visit a local DMV office and take a vision exam and a driver's permit test. In most states, the permit test covers the driving rules and road signs. If the applicant passes the tests, he is issued with the learners permit.

The drivers permit must be held for a certain period of time before the applicant can proceed to the next level of the graduated drivers license system - restricted license. During this time, the teenager must observe permit restrictions and complete the supervised driving hours as required by the state. Learners permit holders are allowed to drive only while supervised by another licensed driver.

Stage 2 - Restricted Drivers License

The second stage of the graduated driver's license program is obtaining a restricted drivers license. Before you can upgrade to this stage, you must fulfill the graduated license requirements for stage 1.

Restricted drivers license can be issued to applicants who demonstrate safe driving habits during stage 1 and who pass the drivers license test. On the road test, the examiner usually asks you to perform most of the common driving maneuvers - backing up, parking, making a U-turn, driving in congested traffic. If you pass the exam, you are upgraded to the restricted license that allows you to drive without being supervised by another driver, but still holds certain limitations.

Stage 3 - Unrestricted License

You are usually upgraded to unrestricted license when you turn 18 or when you hold your restricted license for the required period. Unrestricted license does not have any graduated license restrictions and you can do whatever you want, provided you follow the traffic laws in your state.

Who Has to Observe the Graduated License Law

The graduated drivers license law targets primarily teenage drivers as they belong to the highest risk group when it comes to driving. In most states, anyone who applies for a drivers license before he or she turns 18 automatically becomes subjected to the graduated license laws, however, lately there has been a tendency to apply the same rules to older applicants as well.

Graduated License Restrictions

While driving with your learners permit or restricted driver's license, you will have to observe your state permit restrictions. These rules were designed to keep you and those around you safe and breaking the rules may see your driving privilege suspended or revoked. The common drivers permit rules are:

  • Supervised driving only. Applies to learners permit holders. If you are driving with a learners permit, you must always have another licensed driver seated next to you. In some states, the supervising driver must be your parent, legal guardian or professional driving instructor.
  • Curfew. Most of the states prohibit nighttime driving for both learners permit and restricted driver's license holders. Driving at night is much more dangerous than driving during the day and most of the new drivers don't have the required skills.
  • Passenger restrictions. Peers are known to be a distraction, so the state usually limits the number of underage passengers that can be present in the vehicle operated by a permit or restricted license holder.
  • No cell phones. This is an absolute must for both the learners permit and the restricted driver's license holders. Hands-free isn't allowed either. If you have to make a call, park the vehicle observing the driving rules, turn the engine off and make the call.

Exceptions to these graduated license restrictions can be made in case of an emergency or when the driver is traveling to employment, medical or school related activities.

You can always check what restrictions apply to you in your state drivers handbook.

Drivers Education Classes

Some states require that students complete a drivers education or driver safety course as part of the graduated license program. Even if your state does not require you to complete the course, you may still want to do so for a number of reasons. Drivers education classes prepare you for the permit exam, they make you a safer driver and they can even make you eligible for an insurance discount. Some drivers ed programs will also include driving hours with a professional driving instructor, so you will have a chance to gain some driving experience in a relatively safe driving environment.