Why Are Norwegian Drivers Safer Drivers Than Americans?

Drivers in Norway are safer than those in the US. Let's unpack way.
Drivers in Norway are safer than those in the US. Let’s unpack way.

This is part of an ongoing series in lessons on international perspectives in driving safety and culture. My goal is to shed light for American audiences on how the leading countries in auto safety (as measured by the lowest death rates per capita) manage the complex and dangerous relationship between human beings, our environments, and our automobiles.

I’ve written before about how Norwegian roads are among the safest on the planet and about how children in Norway are less likely to die due to traffic than children in virtually any other country on the planet. Today’s article focuses on some factors that tie into why drivers are less likely to be involved in fatal crashes in Norway than in the United States. To put it simply, Norwegian drivers are, on average, safer drivers than Americans. I wanted to find out why, so I learned about the process behind becoming a legal driver on Norwegian roads. The short of it is that by the time a licensed Norwegian driver gets behind the wheel for the first time, s/he has received far better training and is required to behave far more responsibly as a lifelong driver than the equivalent American driver. Let’s look into the how and why together.

1. Norwegian teens don’t drive until they turn 18

To get a category B driver’s license in Norway, which is necessary for driving a car, you need to be at least 18 years old. This is two years longer than in most states in the United States (with the exception of New Jersey, which doesn’t offer an intermediate license until 17, and South Dakota, which allows 14-year-olds to obtain licenses), which gives teenagers two more years to gain crucial cognitive maturity and supervised driving experience.

The provision of additional time for development and practice is particularly key when one notes that, in the United States, 16-19-year-olds have the highest rates of fatal crash involvement per mile for all drivers below the age of 80. Within that subset, 16-17-year-olds have nearly twice the rate of fatal crash involvement per mile as 18-19-year-olds. Norway bypasses the highest risk years by restricting eligibility for driving multi-ton vehicles until drivers are at least 18.

2. Norwegian driver’s education classes are among the most detailed on the planet

Driver’s education in Norway can be divided into three steps: taking the mandatory (and optional) courses, passing the theoretical test, and finally, passing the practical test. The coursework can be divided into four stages: basic traffic knowledge, basic driving skills, road traffic skills, and long-distance training.

In stage 1, you’re required to take courses on first aid and night driving. If you’re under 25, you also need to take a basic traffic course. The basic traffic course is 10 hours long, and the first aid course is 4 hours long and includes training on how to administer basic first aid and effectively convey information to first responders and emergency personnel. You also deal with a simulated crash scene involving crash test dummies. The night driving course is 3 hours long and involves an actual nighttime driving demonstration to illustrate the hazards drivers can encounter during night driving. Before you take any of this, you will typically also take a 45 minute driving assessment so the driving instructor at your driving school can assess your training level and determine whether you’d be likely to pass the practical test with only the mandatory courses or whether you’d also benefit from the optional courses.

In stage 2, you focus on basic driving techniques, including steering, braking, vehicle positioning, and parking. However, you also learn to locate basic parts of the car, including how to open the hood, check and apply wiper fluid, and more. To advance from stage 2 to 3, you need approval from your driving instructor, which comes after a 45-minute driving lesson and a self-assessment you conduct in concert with instructor feedback.

In stage 3, you focus on road traffic, in terms of navigating environments with numerous other vehicles while processing signs and other road information. There are 3 required hours of driving a closed course safety circuit, 3 hours of driving in a 2-lane road, and a 45 minute guidance class again with approval required for advancement. Within stage 3, you also will get slippery road training on the closed circuit. Within this training, you’ll drive on roads coated with oil and water to provide you with exposure to low-traction conditions. Once again, with instructor approval after your 45 minute driving lesson, you’ll be able to advance to stage 4.

In stage 4, you focus on final training before the theoretical and practice tests. There are 13 required hours that are a mixture of driving and theory (class time). No other stages involve class time besides parts of stage 1. The theoretical course presents risky driving situations and means of avoiding or mitigating them. Next comes a 5 hour long-distance driving course, during which you’ll spend up to 5 hours driving under supervision; you also get to practice emergency procedures you’d use if your car malfunctioned. Finally, you have a tour planning course where you need to plan (and then drive) an efficient route to get from point A to B (both selected by the trainer).

The theoretical test is 45 questions long and requires a 85% score (38 questions correct) to pass. If you fail, you need to wait for 2 weeks before you retake it. From then, you have 3 years to pass the practical test. The practical test includes a vehicular safety check, actual driving, and parking after the drive. You learn if you pass at the end of the test. If you fail, you need to wait for 4 weeks before retaking it and take additional courses in between.

In comparison, in the United States, the rules for driver’s licensure vary considerably from state to state due to federalism. However, applicants generally must complete some sort of driver’s training before completing a theoretical and then practical test. The requirements for training may be waived for drivers above a certain age (e.g., 18).

4. It can cost up to $4,000 to obtain a Norwegian driver’s license

In Norway, it’s not unusual to need to spend up to 30,000 NOK (~$4,000 USD) from start to finish in the process of becoming a licensed driver. When you consider the sheer number of mandatory and optional courses you might end up taking on the way to licensure, it’s not surprising. The goal behind the process isn’t simply to extract money from citizens, but to put them through a gauntlet that results in far better competence for beginning drivers there than that in drivers throughout most of the rest of the world.

In comparison, in the United States, it typically doesn’t take more than around $25 to obtain a permit and license, as the US doesn’t consistently require license candidates take professional driving courses, as is the case in Norway and numerous countries around the world. Some states (e.g., Maryland) require a minimal amount of coursework (e.g., 30 hours of class time and 6 hours of driving time), and prices for such courses can reach into the low-to-mid hundreds, which is overpriced for the pittance of hours actually spent driving.

While there is something undeniably democratic about making driver’s licenses essentially free, as they are in most parts of the United States, it does come at a cost, in that it invariably leads to far less trained drivers obtaining their licenses. Of course, each country could fully fund detailed and professional driver’s education (especially countries as rich as the United States and Norway), but it appears far more common to either offer free bare-bones universal training (as is the case in the United States through the public high school system) or expensive private professional training (as is the case in Norway). The Norwegian approach results in far fewer people driving, but it also does result in a significantly safer population behind the wheel, because you can’t just buy your way into a license–you need to do a lot of supervised driving along the way.

5. Every newly licensed driver faces a 2 year probationary period in Norway

It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80; if you’ve passed all the tests, paid all the fees, and become a licensed driver for the first time in Norway, you’re considered to be on probation. It’s called a trial license, and it lasts for 2 years. During this period, it’s literally twice as easy to lose your license as it is when you aren’t in the probationary period.

Norway features a point system, where the accumulation of 8 points in 3 years leads to a temporary revocation of your driving license. Most traffic tickets result in an automatic 2 points. However, if you’re on a trial license, points are doubled. In other words, two traffic tickets in your first two years of driving means a revoked license. The revocation period is typically six months long. However, if it occurs during a trial license, you’ll need to take all of your tests again–both the theoretical (written) tests and the practical (driving) ones. And you don’t get to take them again until after your suspension ends, which means there’s no fast-forwarding the process.

In the US, new and young drivers typically face various forms of probation upon license acquisition, but once again, the details can vary considerably from one state to the next.

Why is the US so much more freewheeling about driving compared to Norway?

The difference in the driving culture between the two countries is likely due to a variety of reasons. However, one of the most pertinent is the US’ much greater identification with the automobile than that present in Norway. This, of course, is largely due to deliberate collusion between the auto industry and the government in the early 20th century, as our highway systems, grid-based cities, and auto-centric living spaces and spacing didn’t arise by accident (or else they would exist in equal degree throughout fellow rich nations, and they most certainly do not). To put it simply, Americans were programmed to view auto travel as the only reasonable means of travel, and our lives were largely spaced in ways that reinforced this line of thought. As a result, it was necessary to make car access as easy as possible for the average person (this also explains credit access in the US, which is far less regulated than its equivalent in fellow rich countries).

How do we change this culture?

We need to drive less, drive more carefully, and advocate for the return of human-centric (and not auto-centric) living spaces. That means lower speeds, fewer cars, more space for people–pedestrians, children, cyclists, the elderly. It means a lot of changes in the long term. It means alternative transportation options–bicycles, buses, trains. And in relation to auto travel, it means following and advocating Vision Zero principles. Every human has the right to live without fear of dying from auto traffic.

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