Twenty five years ago, North Carolina adopted graduated licensing for young drivers, a system founded on the principle that “[s]afe driving requires instruction in driving and experience.” G.S. 20-11(a). The statutory scheme implementing this program grants driving privileges on a limited basis and expands those privileges over time and upon the satisfaction of additional requirements. Id. Accordingly, to receive the first level of a driver’s license – termed a limited provisional license – a driver must have held a limited learner’s permit for at least 12 months. The holder of a limited provisional license generally may not drive unsupervised after 9 p.m. and may not have more than one passenger under the age of 21 in the vehicle. Last month, the General Assembly ratified legislation that loosens these requirements.
COVID backlog. Many teenagers who came of driving age during the COVID-19 pandemic were unable to obtain a limited learner’s permit (which requires completion of classroom and driving instruction and passing a written DMV test) until many months after their fifteenth birthday. Because G.S. 20-11 as it existed in 2021 required those teenagers to hold a limited learner’s permit for 12 months, they were ineligible to receive a limited provisional license until many months after their sixteenth birthday. In 2021, the legislature shortened to six months the period of time for which a new driver was required to hold a limited learner’s permit before becoming eligible to obtain a limited provisional license. See S.L. 2021-24, as amended by Section 12 of S.L. 2021-134. Those changes expired at the end of last year. Id.
2023 changes. Legislation enacted this year resurrects the COVID-era changes and loosens restrictions moving forward. S.L. 2023-13.
First, Section 1 of S.L. 2023-13 provides that until December 31, 2023, a new minor driver must hold a limited learner’s permit for at least six months (rather than 12) to be eligible for issuance of a limited provisional license. That provision became effective on April 25, 2023.
Second, Section 2 of S.L. 2023-13 provides that effective January 1, 2024, a new minor driver must hold a limited learner’s permit for at least nine months (rather than 12) to be eligible for issuance of a limited provisional license.
Finally, Section 3 of S.L. 2023-13 amends the limitations on how many passengers under the age of 21 may be in a vehicle driven by the holder of a limited provisional license. Under current law, there may be no more than one passenger under age 21 in the vehicle. G.S. 20-11(e)(4). This limit does not apply to passengers who are members of the license holder’s immediate family or who live in the same household with the driver. Id. However, if a family member who is under 21 is in the vehicle, no non-family-member passengers who also are under 21 may be in the vehicle. Id.
S.L. 2023-13 amends G.S. 20-11(e)(4) to provide that when a family member under 21 is in the vehicle, one other non-family-member passenger who is under 21 also may be in the vehicle when that passenger is a student being driven directly to or from school. This change is effective August 1, 2023.
Not without controversy. The bill’s sponsor said the legislation was responsive to requests from teens and their parents and that it put North Carolina’s law more in line with neighboring states. See S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-180 (permitting issuance of special restricted driver’s license to a person who is sixteen years old and who has held a beginner’s permit for at least 180 days); VA. Code Ann. § 46.2-335.2 (requiring that minor driver hold learner’s permit for at least nine months). Safety advocates, on the other hand, criticized the changes as undermining as scheme that has been associated with reduced crash risk for teen drivers. Citing those safety concerns, Governor Roy Cooper declined to sign the bill, which became law without his signature on May 6.