Why Swedish teens are allowed to drive cars without a licence

Thanks to an old Swedish regulation, teenagers can drive cars without a licence. But authorities warn of a rise in accidents.

Why Swedish teens are allowed to drive cars without a licence
Evelina Christiansen, 15, poses with her BMW, which has been modified not to exceed 30 kilometres per hour. Photo: Alma Cohen/AFP

Too young for a driver’s licence at 15, Evelina Christiansen is already cruising in a sleek BMW in Sweden, where teens can drive any car modified to roll no faster than a golf cart.

An almost century-old regulation originally applied to agricultural vehicles allows kids 15 and older to drive without a proper driver’s licence, as long as the vehicle has been altered to have a maximum speed of 30 kilometres per hour.

Called an “A-traktor” – with Swedes often using “EPA” as the older designation – these cars and trucks have become so popular in recent years 
that authorities are now concerned about a rise in road accidents.

“I got it a year ago, in April, for my birthday,” Evelina tells AFP proudly in front of her BMW in the driveway of her family’s home in  a southern Stockholm suburb.

The gift was a special reward for her achievements in school.

Oskar Flyman adjusts a triangular warning sign that indicates the car is an A-traktor. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

While teenagers elsewhere have to make do with a moped or scooter until they get a driver’s licence, young Swedes can use almost any vehicle that has  its top speed capped.

In Stockholm’s wealthy suburbs, young kids are regularly seen driving  Porsche Cayennes on their own.

“I usually use it when I go to school or meet up with friends,” Evelina says.

A triangular warning sign in the back indicating a slow-moving vehicle and a hitch ball for trailers are both mandatory for an “A-traktor”.

The back seat must also be removed, so they can carry only the driver and one passenger.

All that is required is a simple moped licence, available from the age of 15, or a tractor licence, from 16. 

The system is surprisingly lenient in a country known for championing road safety – the three-point seatbelt is a Swedish invention – and for its strict drink driving rules.

The system was relaxed even further in mid-2020, when it became possible to cap cars’ top speed electronically, making it much easier to modify a modern car. 

Criticism from the EU

Originally the domain of youths in rural areas, city kids have increasingly been getting wheels of their own, with the number of registered A-traktors doubling to 50,000 in just two and a half years, in a country of 10.3 million inhabitants.

The predecessors to today’s A-traktors originated during the 1930s Depression, when there was a shortage of agricultural equipment.

To encourage the construction of cheap vehicles when tractors were still out of reach for farmers, the government allowed them to cobble together simple cars.

In the 1950s, as the economy prospered, real tractors became more common and the need for these homestyled vehicles began to subside.

But in the countryside, young people without a licence were happy to use them to get around, especially in areas without much public transport.

The state formalised the use of A-traktors with a 1963 regulation, which has been closely guarded for decades in rural Sweden.

Only in 2018 did authorities introduce mandatory road worthiness testing for the vehicles.

Since 2020, it has been possible to cap car speeds electronically. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Sweden looks set however for a battle with the EU – the European Commission criticised the system in early March, and proposed that a simplified permit become mandatory.

For many rural teenagers, the A-traktor symbolises their dream of independence.

It is also the focus of a growing subculture focused on customised cars and a new music genre hugely popular in Sweden called “EPA Dunk”.

In the western Swedish town of Karlstad, 17-year-old Ronja Löfgren regularly turns heads with her 5.5-tonne Scania Vabis truck from 1964, which her father saved from the scrap heap.

The teen has adorned the refurbished truck with a gleaming red-and-blue paint job and lots of headlights. The motto “Queen of the Road” is emblazoned on the front and “Go with style” on the back.

“When I went into town at first, everyone would pull out their phones and film me,” Löfgren told AFP.

Soaring accidents

Following the surge in new registrations since 2020, insurers and police have expressed alarm at the more than fivefold increase in accidents involving A-traktors in five years.

The number of injuries has exceeded 200 per year and there were four deaths in 2022 alone.

Oskar, left, and Jakob Flyman, pose for a picture outside their garage, specialising in converting regular cars into A-Traktors. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

For others, the surge has become a business opportunity.

Oskar Flyman, 21, and his younger brother started a business in 2021 converting cars into A-traktors.

“You can find A-traktors from 30,000 kronor ($2,900) to 200,000 kronor,” Flyman said, adding that if you already have a car, a typical conversion costs around 25,000 kronor.

In their garage in a suburb north of Stockholm, filled with Audis and BMWs, they do about five to six conversions a month.

Sweden’s transport authority has recently proposed that as with regular cars, the wearing of seatbelts and the use of winter tires become compulsory.

Article by AFP’s Alma Cohen

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EU countries to extend range of offences foreign drivers can be fined for

The EU has agreed to extend the number of driving offences for which motorists from other member states can be fined for and to make it easier for authorities to chase up the fines and make foreign drivers pay.

EU countries to extend range of offences foreign drivers can be fined for

In the last voting session of this term, in April, the European Parliament passed new rules to ensure drivers who breach local traffic rules in another EU member state are found and fined.

The cross-border enforcement (CBE) directive was first adopted in 2015 after it was found that non-resident drivers were more likely to commit speeding offences. The European Commission estimated that in 2008, foreign drivers accounted for about 5 percent of road traffic in the EU but committed around 15 percent of speeding offences.

The directive partially improved the situation, but according to the Commission 40 percent of traffic violations committed in other EU countries are still unpunished “because the offender is not identified or because the fine is not enforced”.

In March 2023, the Commission therefore proposed updating existing measures.

New rules extend the type of offences that will trigger assistance from another member state and seek to improve collaboration among national authorities to identify and fine offenders.

The European Parliament and Council agreed in March on the final text of the directive, which is now being formally approved by the two institutions.

André Sobczak, Secretary-General at Eurocities, a group representing European cities in Brussels, said: “While the final outcome of the discussions is not ideal, we are pleased that EU policymakers have at least put the issue of the enforcement of local traffic rules on foreign vehicles on the table. As we approach an election year, I believe such a practical example can demonstrate why a European approach is necessary to address local issues.”

Which traffic offences are covered?

The previous directive covered eight driving misconducts that would require member states to cooperate: speeding, not wearing seat belts, failing to stop at a red traffic light, drink-driving, driving under the effect of drugs, not wearing a helmet (motorcycles / scooters), using a forbidden lane and using a mobile phone or other communication devices while driving.

The Commission proposed to add to the list not keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front, dangerous overtaking, dangerous parking, crossing one or more solid white lines, driving the wrong way down a one way street, not respecting the rules on “emergency corridors” (a clear lane intended for priority vehicles), and using an overloaded vehicle.

The Parliament and Council agreed to these and added more offences: not giving way to emergency service vehicles, not respecting access restrictions or rules at a rail crossings, as well as hit-and-run offences.

Despite calls from European cities, the new directive does not cover offences related to foreign drivers avoiding congestion charges or low emission zones. In such cases, information about vehicle registration can only be shared among countries with bilateral agreements.

Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General at POLIS, a network of cities and regions working on urban transport, called on the next European Commission to take other local traffic offences, such as breaches of low emission zones, “fully at heart”.

Collaboration among national authorities

For the traffic violations covered by the directive, EU countries have to help each other to find the liable driver. The new directive further clarifies how.

Member states will have to use the European vehicle and driving licence information system (Eucaris) to get the data of the offender.

National authorities will have 11 months from the date of the violation to issue the fine to a vehicle from another EU member state. However, they will not have to resort to agencies or private entities to collect the fine. This was requested by the European Parliament to avoid scams or leaks of personal data.

Authorities in the country of the offender will have to reply to requests from another EU member state within two months.

When the amount of the fine is more than €70, and all options to have it paid have been exhausted, the member state where the violation occurred can ask the country of the offender to take over the collection.

The person concerned will be able to request follow-up documents in a different official EU language.

When will the new rules will be enforced?

Now that the EU Parliament has passed the law, the EU Council has to do the same, although there is no date set for when that will happen. Once the directive is adopted, EU countries will have 30 months to prepare for implementation.

Last year the Commission also proposed a new directive on driving licenses, but negotiations on the final text of this file will only take place after the European elections.

This article has been produced in collaboration with Europe Street news.