How do Graduated Driver's License Programs and Permits Work

Historically, it was easy to get a driver's license when you reached the age of sixteen. You might obtain a learner's permit so that you could practice driving with an adult, but once you were ready to drive you could obtain a full driver's license upon passing any required written tests and road tests.

In modern times, with the goal of improving driver safety, states have created graduated driver's license programs under which young drivers must work through a progression of steps before they may obtain a full license.

How Graduated Licenses Work

The graduated license process requires a young driver to proceed through a series of restricted licenses, usually holding each type of permit for a period of six months to a year. Typical steps include:

  • Learner's Permit - a young driver must apply for a learner's permit and hold that permit for a specified period of time, during which the permit holder may drive only with an adult, licensed driver in the passenger seat, and during restricted hours that minimize night-time driving.
  • Intermediate License - If the young driver successfully completes the requirements for driving under a permit, the driver becomes eligible for an intermediate or provisional license. The intermediate license may require an adult driver to be present in the front passenger seat if other passengers, particularly minors or in some states passengers below the age of 21, are traveling in the vehicle. The state may impose limits on the number of passengers that may be present in the vehicle. The license typically restricts hours of driving, but with a broader range of permitted hours and with possible exceptions for such reasons as travel for work, school, or for a religious activity.
  • Full License - Once the young driver has successfully completed the required period for holding an intermediate license, with no outstanding court-ordered restrictions, suspensions, or probationary restrictions imposed, the driver may seek full driving privileges.

States may impose additional restrictions, such as forbidding the presence of alcohol within a vehicle operated by a permit holder or intermediate license holder, even if the alcohol is sealed and there is an adult in the vehicle, or forbidding any use of a cell phone or mobile device service even if the driver is using a headset.

Violating a Graduated License

The consequences of violating the restrictions on a graduated license can be significant, resulting in period of the suspension of driving privileges and delays in progressing to the next stage in the licensing process or in obtaining a full license. In some states, the violation of a learner's permit or provisional license may result in citation for a traffic violation, with points that will appear on the driver's record.

Driving Alone With a Learner's Permit

A learner's permit is not an ordinary driver's license, and a permit holder is permitted to operate a vehicle only under proper supervision for the purpose of learning how to drive. Consequences for driving with only a learner's permit potentially include:

  • Suspension or revocation of the permit
  • Charges for driving without a valid driver's license.

In most states driving without a valid driver's license is a criminal offense, and in most other's it's a serious moving violation. The cost of paying a ticket or defending against a misdemeanor traffic offense can be significant, easily $1,000 or more, and there may also be an increase in the driver's insurance costs.

Violating Intermediate License Restrictions

Although the holder of an intermediate or provisional license has considerably more freedom to drive than the holder of a permit, the remaining restrictions on the intermediate license can be significant. It can be tempting to take a car out after curfew, or to drive some friends to an event.

However, as with a permit, the violation of the restrictions placed on the provisional license may result in suspension or revocation of the license, and may result in a costly ticket and trip to traffic court. In some states, a violation of driver's restrictions can potentially be charged as a criminal misdemeanor.

Many states provide an exception to the restrictions on intermediate licenses if the license holder is transporting somebody in need of emergency medical assistance or personal protection to a health care professional or police agency.

Committing Traffic Violations

The commission of a traffic violation, even if minor, can have a significant effect on the graduated licensing process.

For a holder of a learner's permit, the permit will often require at least six months of driving with no violations, and in some states that period may be as long as a year. The consequence of a traffic ticket could thus be to significantly delay the driver's eligibility for an intermediate license, because the waiting period starts over as a result of the violation. Also, a ticket for a moving violation or for multiple violations may trigger a suspension of the permit.

For holders of intermediate or provisional licenses, the rules may be similar or may be a bit more relaxed. If the driver receives tickets for one or perhaps two minor traffic infractions, the driver may nonetheless be allowed to apply for a full license. But for more serious violations or a larger pattern of violations, the waiting period for obtaining a full license will reset. A pattern of traffic violations may result in the suspension of the intermediate license.

Some states require a period of accident-free driving before a young driver may qualify for the next stage of licensing, with that restriction potentially applying even if the driver as not at fault for the accident.


Copyright © 2017 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.