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Graduated driver licensing systems (GDLS) are designed to provide new drivers of motor vehicles with driving experience and skills gradually over time in low-risk environments. There are typically three steps or stages through which new drivers pass. They begin by acquiring a learner’s permit, progress to a restricted, provisional or probationary licence, followed by receipt of a full drivers licence.

Acquiring a learner’s permit typically requires a minimum age and passing vision and knowledge tests. Parental or guardian permission may be required if below a specified age. Those who hold a learner’s permit must generally drive under the supervision of a licensed driver, not be affected by alcohol or other drugs, and there may be restrictions imposed on maximum speed that a learner driver can drive, the types of road that can be driven, and even on the use of mobile phones (cell phones). There may also be limits imposed on the number of passengers in the vehicle, and learner drivers may be required to be free of moving violations and at-fault accidents or crashes for a minimum period of time before moving to the next stage. In many jurisdictions a learner driver is required to display an L sign on the outside of the vehicle to indicate to other road users that training and supervised driving is being undertaken. Learner drivers may also be required to complete a logbook of their driving experience, which must be certified or countersigned by a supervising driver or driver trainer.

The transition from a learner licence to an intermediate, provisional or probationary licence typically requires a minimum age and usually requires the learner driver to pass an on-road driving test, although in some jurisdictions there may be alternative licensing paths offered involving a continuous process of competency based training and assessment under the guidance and instruction of an accredited driver trainer.

Those who receive an intermediate, provisional or probationary licence may drive without supervision, although driving at certain times (typically after midnight until around sunrise) and driving with passengers in the vehicle may require the presence of a supervising driver who is fully licensed. Drivers typically must remain free of moving violations and at-fault accidents for a specified period of time. In some places, drivers with these licences must have no alcohol or other drugs in their blood while they are driving, and may be restricted to certain maximum speeds and from using mobile phones. In some jurisdictions an intermediate, provisional or probationary driver is required to display a P sign on the outside of the vehicle to indicate to other road users and police of their licence status (and hence of restrictions that may apply).

Receipt of a full drivers licence typically requires a specific minimum age, a minimum time period of driving experience, and may require the passing of a final road test of driving skills or the passing of a hazard perception test.

Graduated driver licensing systems are regarded as the primary means of ensuring that novice drivers (typically young drivers) are introduced to the use of motor vehicles in a safe, controlled, and low risk manner.

The first graduated driver licensing systems involving a learner licensing phase, an intermediate, provisional or probationary licensing phase, and full licensing were developed in Australia in the 1960s, but the advocacy of graduated driver licensing in North America is associated with Professor Patricia Waller, of the University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Research Center and later the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, commencing in the 1970s.

North American graduated driver licensing systems emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s (and were heavily influenced by a revamped graduated licensing system introduced in New Zealand in the 1980s, itself based on Waller's writings), and have now been adopted in almost all US and Canadian jurisdictions. These systems place particular emphases on passenger restrictions and night time driving curfews for young drivers.

In contrast, the approach of European graduated driver licensing systems places much greater emphasis on the training experiences of learner drivers prior to solo driving, with a lesser focus on licence restrictions at the intermediate, provisional or probationary licensing phase. Young drivers in European graduated driver licensing systems are typically older, as minimum licensing ages are older that in the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. As well, most learner driver experience is obtained through professional driving instructors rather than through ad hoc supervision.

The Australian approaches to graduated driver licensing reflect and extend the thinking underpinning the North American and European approaches, combining restrictions on young drivers with intensive training requirements but also adding significant enforcement (zero tolerance with regard to speeding, driving while impaired by alcohol or other drugs, and the use of mobile telephones by young drivers) and penalty components (particularly the suspension of a drivers licence for offences, the impoundment of motor vehicles, and opportunities to attend traffic offender intervention programs as part of the penalty process). As in Europe, minimum licensing ages in Australian graduated driver licensing systems are older than in the North American graduated driver licensing systems, and most learner drivers in Australia also receive driver training from professional driving instructors as well as practice under informal driving supervision. Critical features of the Australian graduated driver licensing systems are the mandatory display of L and P plates on the front and back of vehicles driven by learner drivers and provisionally licensed drivers, and the compulsory carriage of a drivers licence which facilitates police identification of young drivers and their vehicles.

Australian graduated driver licensing systems continue to evolve, and it is considered that the approaches taken in jurisdictions such as New South Wales and Victoria now reflect world best practice in combining regulatory licensing restrictions with driver training while retaining an emphasis on enforcement action and visibility to other road users.

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