Common Good Iowa

Driving teens down Iowa's low road

Posted on April 30, 2024 at 11:27 AM by Sean Finn

Rolling back teen driver restrictions: dangerous to teens, just to benefit employers

Iowa Republicans are rolling back child labor protections again, this time by weakening restrictions that protect young drivers and others on the road. In the waning hours of the legislative session, House and Senate negotiators agreed on a deal to put more young Iowans at risk.

Senate File 2109, if signed by Governor Kim Reynolds, will allow teens as young as 14 to get a special permit to drive as far as 25 miles to and from work.

This bill will put young drivers and others on the road at even greater risk of traffic fatalities so that Iowa employers can access younger, cheaper labor with fewer guardrails.

Car accidents are a leading cause of death for people under 55 in the U.S., and young people are at the greatest risk. Motor vehicle crashes are the No.1 cause of death for teens in the U.S., and teen drivers are more than three times more likely to die in a car crash than drivers 20 and older. In Iowa, young drivers were involved in 16.3% of fatal car crashes in 2021, one of the highest rates nationwide. In 2023 alone, 14- to 17-year-olds in Iowa were involved in over 4,000 car crashes, leading to 17 fatalities and 94 serious injuries.

For workers in the U.S., transportation incidents are the most common type of fatal occupational event, accounting for over a third of all work-related fatalities in 2022. The rate is even higher for teen workers. Transportation accidents, which include those involving a moving vehicle, killed 19 of the 22 youth workers under 18 and all eight youth workers under 16 who were killed in workplace fatalities in 2014, the most recent year for which these data are available.

Graduated driver license laws, which limit driving privileges for minors or permit teen driving only under certain conditions, have been implemented in all 50 states because research has shown these laws are effective at keeping young drivers safe on the road. And, thanks to driver license restrictions and other public safety initiatives, teen driver fatality rates have decreased over the past two decades.

Yet, Iowa’s driver license program is a departure from the traditional model. According to the Iowa Department of Public Safety, Iowa is one of only three states in the nation that allow minors as young as 14.5 to drive unsupervised. This is out of alignment with current best practices in the U.S.: a minimum age of 16 for learner permits plus 30-50 supervised practice hours and a minimum intermediate license age of 17 with night-time driving restrictions and a ban on all teen passengers.

Under current Iowa law, minors can obtain an initial driver’s permit at 14 and a “minor school license” at age 14.5. The minor school license allows 14.5 year-olds to drive without an adult to school, extracurricular activities or farm-related work within 50 miles. Senate File 2109 expands this set of activities to include work of all types (not just farm-related work) within 25 miles.

Iowa is one of at least three states that have pushed to lower the driving age in the past two years in the service of employers seeking greater access to child labor. And it was not the only attempt to weaken child labor protections, as another bill for child care centers would have put teen employees in unsafe situations. It passed the House but did not advance in the Senate.

Passage of SF 2109 on drivers’ permits makes Iowa the fourth state to pass a child labor rollback bill in 2024. The proposals in SF 2109 were originally part of the far-reaching 2023 bill that weakened child labor protections in work hours, hazardous work and employer liability.

The campaign to roll back child labor protections is a coordinated, industry-led effort to expand employers’ access to workers they can pay lower wages. In Iowa, SF 2109 was supported by the Iowa Restaurant Association, Iowa Grocery Industry Association, and Hotel and Lodging Association.

At a time when violations of child labor laws are on the rise, states should be seeking to strengthen, not weaken, the standards that safeguard young people's well-being. Instead, a year after enacting a harmful rollback of Iowa’s child labor standards, lawmakers are again seeking to erode longstanding, evidence-based guidelines that protect everyone on the road from traffic fatalities – fatalities that will disproportionately impact teens.

SF 2109 will needlessly expose more young people to dangerous driving conditions and move Iowa further away from the best practices that keep drivers, passengers, and pedestrians safe in transit.

[1] The states with the highest rates of young driver involvement in fatal car crashes in 2021 are: North Dakota (23.8%), Utah (18.6%), Delaware (18.4%), Montana (17.6%), Wisconsin (16.5%), Iowa (16.3%)
[2] The other two states are Nebraska and Kansas


For more information, contact Sean Finn, policy analyst at Common Good Iowa,

Categories: Jobs & labor

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