Are American teens the worst-trained drivers in the world?

By Mark Vallet

There is a reason teenagers pay a fortune for car insurance

When it comes to miles driven, they are four times more likely than older drivers to be involved in an accident, the Centers for Disease Control reports. While drivers ages 15 to 24 represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population, they account for twice that percentage of the total cost of car accidents.

The cost in human life is huge. Roughly 3,000 U.S. teens died as a result of motor-vehicle accidents in 2009. An additional 350,000 were injured and treated in emergency rooms.

Find affordable auto insurance now. >

While the U.S has made strides in reducing the teen death toll, it continues to send young drivers onto its highways with much less training than most other countries.

All states now have some form of graduated licensing that limits when and where an inexperienced driver can be on the road. But there is no national driver's license standard, and full privileges are granted at a younger age than in almost any other country. (Nine states allow 14-year-olds to receive learner's permits, and full privileges are granted to 16-year-olds in 15 states, according to data gathered by Governors Highway Safety Association.) Several states don't require any driver's education courses.

Driver's license standards much tougher elsewhere

A recent push for national standards would bring America in line with some of the countries with the lowest death rates due to car crashes. The Standup Act would create minimum federal requirements that all states would be encouraged to meet within three years:

  • A minimum age of 16 to get a learner's permit.
  • Nighttime driving would be restricted until a full license is granted at age 18.
  • Communication devices in the vehicle such as cell phones would be prohibited until full licensure.
  • Passengers would be restricted; no more than one non-family member allowed.
  • A full license would not be available before the age of 18.
  • A minimum number of supervised driving hours.

Allstate has been heavily involved in promoting the Standup Act. Its "Save 11" campaign, launched in May, focuses attention on the names and faces of the 11 teens who die each day. Senior Vice President Bill Vainisi calls it a "real human face on this important issue. Federal legislation which creates minimal GDL standards for young drivers is the right step."

Contrast the experience of a new driver in any of the U.S. states with those of his peers in four other countries:

Canada: Much like America, there are no national driving standards in Canada. Licensing is determined on a province-by-province basis. The majority of provinces have strict graduated licensing programs. British Columbia, for example, sets a minimum age of 16 for a permit. Permit holders must be accompanied by a licensed driver over age 25 and display a large "L" decal on the back of the vehicle. Learners are not allowed to drive between midnight and 5 a.m. and can carry only one passenger. A novice license is available at 17 and carries nighttime and passenger restrictions. A full license cannot be obtained until age 19. Any infractions can result in the driver having to start from the beginning. In 2009, British Columbia lost 54 teens in car crashes.

New Zealand: New Zealand was the first country in the world to initiate a graduated licensing plan. Learner's permits are allowed at 16, but a licensed driver must supervise. Learner plates must be displayed, and passengers must be approved by the supervising driver. A restricted license limits nighttime driving as well as passengers. A zero-alcohol tolerance for drivers under 20 will go into effect in late 2011. Fifty-seven teens died in car accidents in New Zealand during 2009.

Germany: Germany has one of the toughest licensing schemes in the world. Germany requires all drivers to attend a driving school and pass a first-aid course. A 16-year-old must apply to a driving school to begin lessons. At 17, a driver test certificate is issued requiring a supervising driver who is at least 30 years old and has five years of driving experience. At 18, a full license is issued. The Federal Highway Research Institute in Germany shows that in 2008 Germany lost 1,064 15- to 24-year-olds due to auto accidents.

Finland: Drivers must be 18, training must occur in a car fitted with an extra set of brake pedals for the front passenger seat, and the instructor, if a relative, must have passed an exam enabling him to teach. A license requires 30 hours of instructed driving, including time on a slippery-driving course, plus a driving test in city traffic. If those tests are passed, the initial license is good for just two years, and before that interim period ends, the driver must pass an additional course that includes more slippery-surface tests and "dark-time training" to cope with Finland's unique lighting conditions. A ticket in that initial period starts the process over. The process can cost thousands of dollars. Sixty-one Finns ages 15 to 24 were killed in road accidents in 2010.

Show more