Dad and son smiling

The graduated driver’s licensing laws in Tennessee are more complex and involved than what many of us went through as teenagers when we first started learning how to drive. Your teenager might feel frustrated at the restrictions and steps in the process, but there is a very good reason that these laws have evolved over time.

The tragic reality is that in the U.S., motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death of young people (ages 15-20), according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Here’s what you need to know about the process of getting your teen safely on the road in Tennessee.


The Graduated Driver License program started in Tennessee in 2001. For new teen drivers, there are four steps in the process of getting a driver’s license:

Learner’s Permit:

  • must be at least 15 years old
  • must pass the standard written exam and vision screening
  • may drive only when accompanied by a licensed driver who is at least 21 and who is riding in the front seat of the vehicle
  • may only drive from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.
  • all passengers and the driver must wear a safety belt

Intermediate Restricted License:

  • must be at least 16 years old
  • must pass the driving skills test (also known as the “road test”)
  • must have possessed a learner’s permit for at least 180 days
  • must have no more than 6 points of driving offenses accumulated on your driving record 180 days prior to receiving your Intermediate Restricted License
  • must have a verified minimum of 50 hours of driving experience (including 10 hours at night)
  • all passengers and the driver must wear a safety belt

Intermediate Unrestricted License:

  • must be at least 17 years old
  • must have possessed an Intermediate Restricted License for at least 1 year
  • must have no more than 6 points of driving offenses accumulated on your driving record
  • must not have any traffic accidents in which you were at fault
  • must not have more than 1 safety belt violation
  • all passengers and driver must wear a safety belt

Regular Driver’s License:

  • must be at least 18 years old OR graduate from high school OR earn a GED, whatever is sooner


Those are the basic requirements for each stage in the graduated license program. It is important to note the driving laws and restrictions in our state have a consistent emphasis on promoting driving safety and education. In this case, we mean both driving education and high school education (or its equivalent).

For example, there are specific rules at each stage of the graduated license process in place regarding your teen’s driving record. Moving violations and car accidents that occur as they are learning can delay their progress in earning their full driver’s license. Also, you probably know how important seat belt safety and messaging are in TN. Young drivers caught not wearing their seat belts will also have a harder time earning the privileges in the next stage of their license.

By now you should know that texting while driving is illegal by any driver in Tennessee. Regular cell phone usage by any driver is a dangerous choice, but did you know that when it comes to teens with a learner’s permit or either of the intermediate licenses, all cellphone use by the driver is a Class C misdemeanor? In addition to a fine, it carries a 90-day penalty delay in securing their next level of graduated license.

If your teen drops out of school before graduation, they will lose any driving privileges they may have earned. They will not be able to apply for a regular driving license until they turn 18. Should your child drop out but later decide to return to school, they may have their permit or restricted license reinstated after meeting certain requirements. However, if they drop out a second time, that’s it, according to the law. No second chances are given in those situations.


It is so important to understand the law and requirements around licensing for your teenage drivers. These laws and the details for each stage of the graduated licensing system do change over time, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re looking at the current regulations. You can read more about the general guidelines here and other important details and examples here.

As an attorney with many years of experience handling auto accident cases, I can assure you that many people, especially new or young drivers, don’t have a good understanding of what to do if they ever wind up in an auto accident. Regardless of who might be at fault, in those critical minutes, hours, and days after a wreck, the decisions your teen could make will certainly have far-reaching consequences from a legal perspective.

It doesn’t need to be scary or intimidating, so let me encourage you to help your teen be prepared. While they are learning about vehicle and driving safety, take some time to review our team’s guide, 5 Critical Steps in the First 48 Hours After a Crash. These are the kinds of things it’s better to know before you might need them, instead of in a crisis moment when everything is moving very quickly.

If you need to talk with a trusted attorney, call or write for a free, no-obligation consultation, 24/7. I’m one of the fewer than 2% of TN lawyers who hold the board-certified distinction. I have been representing auto accident clients since 2001, and I’m happy to let my experience and insight help you and your family when you need me.

The Law Offices of David E. Gordon

The Law Offices of David E. Gordon