The Case for Power-to-Weight Graduated Driver's Licenses

J Sutherland
by J Sutherland

On October 31, 2006, Orange County teen Nikki Catsouras had an argument with her father. When Mr. Catsouras left for work, his daughter “borrowed” his Porsche 911. Approaching a tollbooth, Catsouras rear-ended a Honda at 70 mph. The California Highway Patrol took photographs of the gruesome results, the photos were leaked and went viral. Catsouras sued the police for invasion of privacy. Lost in the shuffle: why was Miss Catsouras–a young, inexperienced driver— legally entitled to drive the Porsche?

The issue is pretty easy to understand: should young, inexperienced motorists be allowed to drive high-powered cars? Australia says no. This despite a 2006 study by the University of Western Australia (funded by red light camera income) that concluded that only three percent of young driver crashes involved vehicles with a high power-to-weight ratio. The state of Victoria, for example, has instituted a power-to-weight related graduated license program for young drivers. Since July 2007, a probationary driver can’t drive a car which has:

  • an engine of eight or more cylinders;
  • a turbocharged or supercharged engine;
  • an engine that has been modified to improve the vehicle’s performance; nor
  • one of the nominated high performance six cylinder vehicles which include BMW M and M3, Honda NSX, Nissan 350Z, Porsche (all models) and Mercedes Benz SLK350

As a sign, perhaps, of the laws arbitrary nature, there are exceptions to the rules:

  • diesel powered turbocharged or supercharged vehicles (without engine performance modifications);
  • nominated vehicles with low powered turbocharged or supercharged engines including Suzuki Cappucino 2D Cabriolet Turbo 3 cylinder 698cc, Daihatsu Copen L880 2D Convertible 4 cylinder 659cc;
  • all models of the Smart car produced by Mercedes Benz; and
  • vehicles driven as a part of the driver’s employment and at the request of the employer

So, how did we get here? Back in the infancy of automobiles the “driving high-powered cars fast” concept was simple—you didn’t. “You” meaning the average driver. Throughout most of the twentieth century, fast cars were a specialty item created by and for professional racers, gentlemen racers, and a small (if geographically diverse) cult of hot rodders. Sure, there were plenty of accidents in low-speed cars, and not much in the way of passive safety, but there was a clear delineation between average schmoes in their “normal” mainstream cars and pistonheads in “high performance exotica.”

Then 1964 happened. Before his love of white lines brought him down, high-flying GM executive John DeLorean decided to plunk a 389 cubic inch motor into a $2751 Pontiac Tempest ($296 option). Suddenly, the pimply-faced nerd pumping gas at the corner Texaco station could own a car with 325 horsepower. The muscle car era was born. Engine power increased, to the point where the Tempest (a.k.a. GTO) offered 360hp @ 5200 rpm, 424 lb·ft of torque @ 3600 rpm and a zero to sixty sprint of just over six seconds. Ford and Chrysler quickly adopted the Tempest template.

The muscle car era peaked in 1968, with the 383 hp (pre-emissions) Plymouth Roadrunner—the limbo bar set at an all time low for affordability. While it’s impossible to break out all the variables which led to a dramatic drop in highway fatalities as the muscle car ended, the association of teens, high-powered cars and death was enshrined in popular culture. Dead Man’s Curve anyone?

Fast forward to 2009. If you think technology has made things better, you may be right. Today’s SRT-8, SS and SHO models have safety built in. They offer better brakes and more predictable handling. But the accessibility is a double-edged sword. That Corvette Z06, for example, offers just enough handling to allow an average driver to drive 120 mph off an exit ramp—but not enough to stop him from trying it at 121.

Motorcyclists are the canary in the power-to-weight safety campaigners’ coal mine. It’s now generally recognized that novice bikers shouldn’t be allowed to sit atop machines that can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in three seconds and top-out at 135 mph even if they can afford the price of admission. The UK has the most extensive motorcycle graduated license program: three stages of empowerment based on the bike’s horsepower and speed potential.

What makes a car any different? When you can buy a 400 horsepower motor the size of a sewing machine and put it in a street Honda Civic it’s time to evaluate the guy behind the wheel. When Ford dealers hand the keys to a 500 hp Mustang to a twenty-something enthusiast with a basic down payment, it’s time to ask if he should have a license proving the basic ability to handle the horses.

This is the Henry Ford ‘average guy’ concept of affordable cars gone rogue. Skip the Darwinian argument. Stop it now because the kid that eats a mailbox on the 150 mph donorcycle that he bought with his paper route money might be the next Nobel-winning nerd. If a mandatory performance-driving course makes a difference for bikes, then this bit of nanny state-ism makes sense.

[For more of Jerry and Jim Sutherland’s work please visit]

J Sutherland
J Sutherland

Online collector car writer/webmaster and enthusiast

More by J Sutherland

Join the conversation
2 of 147 comments
  • Pch101 Pch101 on Jul 10, 2009
    It is difficult to imagine that learning the skill will not contribute to one’s ability to avoid and/or survive an accident. The accident data indicates that skill has little or nothing to do with anything. That's why people need to read the research -- they need to lose these prejudices that lead to erroneous, inaccurate conclusions. Accident avoidance should be proactive, not reactive. Instead of believing that they can dance their way out of pending wrecks, people need to chill out behind the wheel so that they don't put themselves in a position where drastic maneuvers are necessary in the first place. Unfortunately, training tends to instill the hubris that makes people wreck, as they come to believe that training will save them, when they should be proactively avoiding risk. Street driving and track driving are not the same thing, just as walking down a city sidewalk is not the same thing as running in a track-and-field event. On the street, success is measured by the ability to avoid colliding with others, not by being the fastest, most hip and cool thing on the highway.
  • Flipper Flipper on Jul 12, 2009

    Can it work backwards also. My dad was killed by a 82 year old motorist driving a De ville . How about post 70 you cant Drive anything big or powerful also. We know as a group they also would have an easier time with smaller less powerful cars with good sightlines.When I see elderly people having hard times parking I want to tell them get a smaller car with a tighter turning radius . . that car it now to big for you to judge!

  • Redapple2 HK: The Redapple is the TTAC resident HK hater. I have listed the reasons before. But, I am smart enough to keep my eyes open. I will say this. Overall, they have the best styling/design in autodum. I may not like certain models, but overall, they try. They try something new, different, fresh. Some models are great. Some so-so. But they are TRYING- All the time. Year after year. Other brands are locked into a firm theme - across multiple models and brands. Some lasting decades EX. Evil gm vampire Cadillac Arts and Science has been around for 22 years. Flawed fugly from the start. Never got better.
  • SCE to AUX This is the right direction for EVs, but I can't warm up to Kia's latest styling.This is bad news for Rivian, whose similarly-specced R3 isn't due until 2027 or something.Perhaps a low-spec version will start at $30k (maybe), but the 300-mile version with trimmings will certainly run closer to $50k. Then everyone will say Kia lied.
  • Buickman foolishness has no bounds, or borders.
  • JMII Wonder what the Hyundai version will look like because I am NOT a fan of this styling.Also someone needs to explain to H/K/G that you want the dark colored interior parts were you touch/sit and the lighter color parts elsewhere. For example the door panels here are dark with light armrests - this is backwards. Genesis made the same mistake in the GV60's white/ash (grey) interior. While I greatly appreciate something other then the dreaded black cave interior did they not consider how impossible this will be to keep clean in the real world?
  • JMII I see lots of ads for their CUVs but given the competition in this segment why would I buy an Outlander over a similar product from Toyota, Honda or Hyundai? Mitsubishi needs to offer something compelling, some hook or defining difference. I don't think I've encountered a single person who says "wow have you seen the new [blank] from Mitsubishi? I need to get me one of those".I owned a Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T back in '96 and it was fun car. Mitsubishi once made interesting choices with a rally heritage - those cars were fast and pretty high tech at the time. Like Nissan they kind of fell into the we will finance anyone pool so other then an Evo as a track toy anyone I knew steered clear of them.