Is Driver’s Education Completely Useless?

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

I’m not sure what the drivers education program was like at your high school, but I’ve never been entirely certain that my school’s was normal. You see, our teacher was an older guy who coached about eight different junior varsity sports to pad his salary, and teaching Drivers Ed was most likely exactly that – more salary padding.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe teachers who sponsor and coach after-school activities should do so for free. It’s just a little suspect when one guy coaches football, baseball, and wrestling while also teaching Drivers Ed. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine one guy is really talented enough to teach the youth of America to drive and to coach three different sports at the same time.

But I digress.

The real problem, though, didn’t lie with this multi-talented teacher. It lay with the state laws that mandated 30 hours of classroom time and just six hours behind the wheel to earn a license. Unfortunately, those six hours behind the wheel weren’t spent on a track, and they weren’t spend learning how to drive well. They were mostly spent taking the drivers education instructor on various errands.

For fulfilling the state-mandated driving requirements for each student and simultaneously finishing his errands before dinner time, it was an extremely efficient system for the baseball/football/wrestling coach. Unfortunately, it’s not that hard to drive to the pharmacy without crashing, and yet anyone who managed to achieve that grand feat was deemed capable of operating an automobile by the state of Georgia.

Luckily, my dad is a smart guy who thought it was more important for me to learn to drive from a former SCCA driver than to take my JV football coach to pick up his prescriptions, so he enrolled me in an actual driving school where I learned actual driving skills.

Despite my personal belief that most drivers education programs are a waste of people’s time and money, I never had any proof that I was right. But thanks to Google, I was actually able to look up studies on how effective drivers education programs are. What I found is actually quite sad.

More than 10 years ago, the British Medical Journal published a study that looked at how effective drivers education programs were, and it ultimately concluded that “[t]he international literature provides little support for the hypothesis that formal driver instruction is an effective safety measure. It is argued that such an outcome is not entirely unexpected given that traditional programs fail to address adequately the age and experience related factors that render young drivers at increased risk of collision.”

In summary, the researchers couldn’t prove that people who had participated in drivers education programs were less likely to be involved in traffic incidents than people who had not. Since the study was published, though, few substantial changes have been made to make drivers education more effective.

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

The researchers responsible for the study are not the only ones who have raised questions about the effectiveness of drivers education in the United States, either. The rise of online programs, available in at least 15 states, has only increased the number of people asking questions.

Unfortunately, despite a significant amount of searching, I couldn’t come up with any evidence that online programs were effective at reducing teen crash statistics. Not only are they largely unregulated, they also assume parents aren’t lying when they claim to have effectively taught their children how to drive.

The two biggest problems with teen drivers is that they’re young and that they’re inexperienced. Some have argued for increasing the age requirements for obtaining a license. While that addresses the maturity issue, it still doesn’t address the experience issue, and a younger driver with more experience is pretty much guaranteed to make fewer mistakes than an older driver with less experience.

As far as I can tell, the only system that has been proven effective for licensing new drivers is multi-tiered, gradual licensing program that doesn’t allow driving time to be substituted for experience. Slowly giving young drivers more privileges over time instead of letting them have full freedom the second they pass a single test makes far more logical sense, and it’s also been proven to be effective.

When Oregon instituted graduated licensing, for instance, it ended up being incredibly successful at reducing crash rates for teen drivers.

As Oregon’s program proves, though, graduated licensing isn’t enough. Young drivers need to receive more instruction behind the wheel, need to be taught more about the effects of risky behavior and need to be shown how to assess risk while driving. When they’re actually taught how to control both themselves and the cars they’re driving, that’s when crash rates go down.

With the patchwork of state regulations in place for drivers education, though, it’s going to take much more than a study or two to change each state’s programs, though. It’s going to take angry parents demanding to know why their local drivers education classes haven’t actually lowered crash rates. It’s going to take pressure from the federal government for local governments to get in line, but it’s also going to require citizens to demand that their local governments make the changes that are necessary.

If nothing actually gets done, though, we’re only going to continue to see high rates of teens crashes and traffic deaths.

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