Looking to build the perfect young driver? You might want to move to Germany. The land of the unlimited-speed autobahn is renowned for the strictest driver-training standards in the world. Of course, moving isn't always an option--but Germany's tough licensing process provides a revealing look at driver's ed done right.
The experience of Greta, a German college student, is typical. Greta couldn't even begin driver training until she turned 18. She then had to attend 14 one-hour classes on the theory of driving, followed by professional instruction that included driving at night, on autobahns, in traffic, and in bad weather. Finally, after roughly eight months of lessons that cost her parents more than $1500, Greta was deemed ready for the 45-minute driving test (she passed). No wonder drivers of all ages in Germany have much less risk of being involved in a serious accident than their U.S. counterparts--this despite Germany's notorious traffic and the high speeds encountered on many autobahns.
U.S. licensing standards are less stringent, though there are encouraging signs of improvement. Most states will issue a permit to begin driver training at age 15 (some states allow teenagers as young as 14 to start). In most of the country, young drivers enter a graduated driver licensing program--a training process that's been adopted by 38 states since the early '90s. Most GDL programs are made up of three phases: (1) the Learner's Permit, where young drivers spend six months or more driving with an experienced driver, (2) the Restricted License, where learners can drive without supervision, but with limitations on number of passengers and time of day (nighttime driving is usually prohibited), and (3) the Full License, granted only after the driver reaches a specified age (sometimes as old as 18), passes a driving test, and posts an infraction-free record during the previous phases.
So far, GDL programs look encouraging. A 2001 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association involving North Carolina drivers showed that fatal-crash rates among 16-year-olds dropped 57 percent from 1996, before the adoption of the GDL program, to 1999, when the system was in place. Similar studies conducted in Michigan and Kentucky have revealed equally compelling improvements. Still, the success of any GDL program depends on one crucial element: a patient, involved parent. The student is only as good as the teacher.