Starting Tuesday, 16-year-old Germans can drive so-called mini cars. The controversial vehicles are not deemed safe by everyone but EU officials required Germany to allow teens to drive them anyway.
They'll still be a little too young
Unlike their contemporaries in many other countries, German teenagers have so far had to wait until turning 18 before being able to drive a car. That's no longer the case as 16-year-olds can now get a driver's license for "Be Up," "Albizia" or MC1," as some of the mini cars are called.
At first sight, the vehicles almost look like normal cars, but they only weigh around 350 kilograms (about 700 pounds) and cannot go faster than 45 kilometers per hour (28 miles per hour).
The lightweight automobiles have raised the eyebrows of car experts, who are concerned about their safety.
"These cars don't offer any active or passive security measures for the driver," said Otto Saalmann of Germany's largest automobile club, ADAC, which has conducted a crash test with a mini car.
"The drivers' crumple zone is pretty much his own body," Saalmann added, saying that the risk of injury was extremely high and that during the test, major parts broke and the transmission was pushed inside the car. Apart from security problems with the vehicle, Saalmann also said mini cars posed a risk on streets as they slow down traffic.
"They can drive on countryside highways, leading to congestion, accidents and risky overtake maneuvers," he said.
EU pushes for teen license
Mini cars are also more common on Japanese streets
But EU competition regulations brought about the driver's licenses for 16-year-olds. Germany did have stricter rules than other union members -- only people aged 18 and over who had a regular driver's license where allowed to drive mini cars. Few dealers sold the mainly French products and they were rarely seen on German roads.
EU commissioners saw this as a competitive disadvantage for mini car makers on the German market and pressured Germany's federal government to lower the age requirement to allow teens to drive before turning 18.
Mathieu Grosch, a Belgian EU parliamentarian, said he agreed with the commission's assessment that German law violated competition rules.
"Clearly there are market tendencies where some people say that they don't want to sell this product in favor of another," he said. "But that's a form of protectionism which cannot be tolerated."
The model of a "quad" bike on a German driver's license
As a compromise, Germany decided to introduce a new class of driver's licences that can be obtained at 16 years of age. The so-called "S" license allows teens to drive mini cars and ride "trikes" and "quads" -- motor bikes with three and four wheels. To get licensed, applicants have to pass a written and practical exam.
By introducing the "S" license, Germany complied with EU demands but still sets the bar much higher than its neighboring countries. Government officials said they believed the new license represented the best possible compromise between EU and national law.
"The only question that's important here is: 'What kind of license do I need to safely drive such a car'?" said Christian Weibrecht, a spokesman for the German transportation ministry. "The question isn't whether such cars are safe or not. It's important to remember that these vehicles have been legal in other EU countries for years and that according to EU law, we cannot prevent that they are sold and driven in Germany."
Experts are not waiting to see whether teenagers will actually end up applying for the "S" license and starting a boom of mini cars on German streets. If nothing else, the costs might keep them from doing so: A license will set them back between €800 and €1,000 and mini cars come with an average price tag of €10,000.
And when the young drivers are ready to switch to the real thing two years later, they will have to start from scratch again to get a "real" driver's license.