Background Despite demonstrating basic vehicle operations skills sufficient to pass a state licensing test, novice teen drivers demonstrate several deficits in tactical driving skills during the first several months of independent driving. Improving our knowledge of the types of errors made by teen permit holders early in the learning process would assist in the development of novel approaches to driver training and resources for parent supervision. Methods The purpose of the current analysis was to describe driving performance errors made by teens during the permit period, and to determine if there were differences in the frequency and type of errors made by teens: (1) in comparison to licensed, safe, and experienced adult drivers; (2) by teen and parent-supervisor characteristics; and (3) by teen-reported quantity of practice driving. Data for this analysis were combined from two studies: (1) the control group of teens in a randomized clinical trial evaluating an intervention to improve parent-supervised practice driving (n = 89 parent-teen dyads) and (2) a sample of 37 adult drivers (mean age 44.2 years), recruited and screened as an experienced and competent reference standard in a validation study of an on-road driving assessment for teens (tODA). Three measures of performance: drive termination (i.e., the assessment was discontinued for safety reasons), safety-relevant critical errors, and vehicle operation errors were evaluated at the approximate mid-point (12 weeks) and end (24 weeks) of the learner phase. Differences in driver performance were compared using the Wilcoxon rank sum test for continuous variables and Pearson's Chi-square test for categorical variables. Results 10.4% of teens had their early assessment terminated for safety reasons and 15.4% had their late assessment terminated, compared to no adults. These teens reported substantially fewer behind the wheel practice hours compared with teens that did not have their assessments terminated: tODA early (9.0 vs. 20.0, p < 0.001) and tODAlate (19.0 vs. 58.3, p < 0.001). With respect to critical driving errors, 55% of teens committed a total of 85 critical errors (range of 1-5 errors per driver) on the early tODA; by comparison, only one adult committed a critical error (p < 0.001). On the late tODA, 54% of teens committed 67 critical errors (range of 1-8 errors per driver) compared with only one adult (p < 0.001). No differences in teen or parent gender, parent/teen relationship type or parent prior experience teaching a teen to drive were observed between teens who committed a critical error on either route and teens that committed no critical errors. A borderline association between median teen-reported practice quantity and critical error commission was observed for the late tODA. The overall median proportion of vehicle operation errors for teens was higher than that of adults on both assessments, though median error proportions were less than 10% for both teens and adults. Conclusion In comparison to a group of experienced adult drivers, a substantially higher proportion of learner teens committed safety-relevant critical driving errors at both time points of assessment. These findings, as well as the associations between practice quantity and the driving performance outcomes studied suggest that further research is needed to better understand how teens might effectively learn skills necessary for safe independent driving while they are still under supervised conditions. © 2014 Published by Elsevier Ltd.