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Graduated driver licensing (GDL) is a multi-phase system designed to gradually expose new drivers to increasingly complex driving situations. Nearly all States have graduated driver licensing systems in place for beginning automobile drivers. Under GDL, new drivers must pass through learner permit and provisional license stages before becoming fully licensed. A learner’s permit allows driving only while supervised by a fully licensed driver and a provisional license prohibits unsupervised driving under certain conditions, such as at night or with passengers. GDL programs for automobile drivers are proven to be effective in reducing crashes (Hedlund et al., 2003, 2006; Williams et al., 2012). See the chapter on Young Drivers for a full discussion on the effectiveness of GDL for automobile drivers.

In general, the concept of GDL for new motorcyclists is similar. Under such a system, new motorcycle operators are subject to specific restrictions limiting their exposure to higher-risk situations. This could include limiting riders to smaller, less powerful motorcycles and to certain times of day, with additional restrictions on maximum speed and carrying passengers. As the rider gains experience, riskier riding situations are permitted.

While all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico require motorcycle riders to obtain motorcycle operator licenses or endorsements before they ride on public highways (MSF, 2018), licensing requirements vary substantially. A full GDL system for motorcyclists has not been implemented in the United States.  However, many States have components of GDL. For example, most States have motorcycle learner permit phases where riding is restricted to certain circumstances, typically prohibiting passengers, riding during certain times of day, riding on certain types of roads, and often requiring supervision by fully licensed motorcyclists. However, for many States this permit phase is only required for certain beginning riders, typically those under 18 or 21 (MSF, 2018).


All States require motorcycle riders to obtain motorcycle licenses or endorsements to ride on public highways. As of 2022 only 15 U.S. States had some form of GDL for motorcyclists, though these requirements apply only for new riders under a certain age, typically 18 or 21 (MSF, 2022).


Much of the research on GDL for motorcyclists has been done in Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand a single graduated licensing system exists for the entire country. In Australia, like the United States, the provisions vary among its six states and two territories. Nonetheless, the general GDL principles are consistent throughout.

An investigation of the effects of the original New Zealand GDL system on motorcyclist hospitalizations from 1978 to 1994 found a 22% reduction in hospitalizations among riders 15 to 19 following implementation of GDL. Concurrently there was a decrease in the number of license holders in this age range, as well as an overall decrease in the number of new motorcycle registrations, suggesting that the benefit of GDL largely resulted from reduced exposure (Reeder et al., 1999).

In Queensland, Australia, a study examined the effect of a series of changes to the GDL system on the required duration of the learner license (Haworth et al., 2010). Beginning in 2007 people who applied for learner motorcycle licenses were required to have been licensed to drive passenger vehicles for at least 12 months. This change effectively increased the minimum age at which riders were eligible for motorcycle learner licenses. In 2008 an additional requirement limited new riders to motorcycles with engine capacity 250 cc for their first year.  There was a dramatic shift in the type of licenses issued following this change, from full unrestricted licenses to provisional licenses. This study did not look at the effect of this change on crash rates.


GDL’s primary costs result from the intermediate license, which adds to licensing agency workload by requiring each beginning driver to receive three licenses in succession rather than two. These costs are typically covered by small fees charged by the licensing agency.

Time to implement:

Licensing changes typically require up to a year to plan, publicize, and implement.

Other considerations:

Unlicensed riders: Despite State requirements, some motorcycle riders are not properly licensed. In 2021 some 36% of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes did not have valid motorcycle licenses, compared to only 17% of passenger vehicle drivers (NCSA, 2023). Licensing systems in some States provide no incentive to become fully licensed because learner’s permits may be renewed indefinitely (Potts et al., 2008, Strategy C3; MSF, 2022). The prioritized recommendations of the NAMS (NHTSA, 2013) recommends several approaches to encourage full licensure. For example, Maryland compared its vehicle registration and driver licensing files and sent a letter to each owner of a registered motorcycle who did not have a motorcycle operator’s license. The letter reminded each registered owner that a motorcycle endorsement was required of anyone operating the registered motorcycle. This quick and inexpensive strategy prompted 1,700 owners to become licensed within 4 months. A randomized controlled experiment of this intervention suggested that while the method did increase licensure, a large percentage remained unlicensed (Braver et al., 2007). California also tried this approach with similar licensure results (Limrick & Masten, 2013). In 2007 Washington State added an authorization to impound vehicles operated by drivers without proper endorsement (including motorcycles). However, an evaluation of the effects of this law did not find significant impact on new or total motorcycle endorsements following implementation of the law (McKnight et al., 2013).