Finding Driver's Ed Programs That Really Work

You may have heard talk about how driver's ed doesn't "work." More than 30 years ago, a federal study found that learning to drive with a professional — OK, the gym teacher counts, too — had no effect on the number of teen car crashes or deaths. Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and many other researcher groups since 1999, raise questions as to whether driver training, whether taught in high school or at a driving school, benefits teen drivers.

So why even bother with driver's ed?

Well, for starters, teen drivers need to learn their basic skills somewhere. And we all know how well many teens listen to their parents. "It was easier learning from a stranger, because I personally have a hard time driving with my parents," one teen driver told the Center for Applied Research for a 2004 report on licensing and driver training in Oregon. Who knows? Maybe learning to drive from the folks ranks so far down on the coolness scale that teen drivers simply turn Mom and Dad off.

Another reason: This generation of teens was raised on the Internet and often learns better when courses have components similar to computer games. There are many online driver's ed courses and most good driving schools will combine interactive teaching with the old chalkboard and textbook. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety sells an interactive DVD, Driver-ZED that puts your teen in the virtual driver seat. (For more information on online programs, see "Driver's Ed Online: End of Classroom Drudgery?")

There is some anecdotal evidence that driver's ed helps. DMV officials queried for the Oregon study said learner's permit applicants taught by professionals made better decisions and paid more attention to details than would-be drivers who had been, well, home-schooled. "Those who have not had driver's ed pick up the bad habits of parents," said one official interviewed for the report. Added another: "As soon as they get in the car and go to the end of the driveway, I can tell you who has had schooling and who has not."

Choosing a School
Still, Christopher Murphy, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) and a father of two teens ages 15 and 17, urges parents to look closely at driver education programs before selecting a course. He said programs should teach ways to reduce risk, including hazard recognition, vehicle handling, space management and speed management.

"Too often these courses are focused on only passing the driving test and don't address the most critical skills, so it is up to parents to make sure they are selecting a good course," said Murphy.

A public school-taught program, if available, can be a feasible option, but should be subject to the same scrutiny — if not more — than you give a private school. Since budget constraints have prompted many school districts to cut back, farm out or eliminate driver's-ed programs, paying for a private school or program may be your best — or only — choice. Besides, if you can afford a private course, it's probably worth taking it if it meets the criteria below. American Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA) CEO Allen Robinson said you should expect to pay $250-$350 for a comprehensive private course that will stress both safety and building basic skills. Anything less than that, he said, and your teen driver is getting less-than-thorough training. ADTSEA, a professional association that represents traffic safety educators, has more research and information about driver's ed.

Robinson advises looking for schools that:

  • Offer at least 36 hours of instruction spread over at least nine weeks
  • Devote at least six hours of that total to on-the-road training, spread out over several days
  • Have a written curriculum or study plan that the instructor can share with you. Look for signs that the course is designed to develop lifetime habits and skills, not just prepare your teen to pass the test
  • Welcome suggestions, and have a few of their own for parents who want to reinforce the messages about safety and driver competence
It's also a good idea to ask other parents whose teen drivers have taken public or private courses for their recommendations.

When you narrow your choices, check out the condition and age of the school's equipment — its training cars, classroom simulators and computer software. And don't put too much stock in the rate at which a school's students are said to pass the learner's permit exam. A better test may be how willing a school is to spend extra time with a student whose study habits or motor skills put him at risk, not just for failing a test, but for operating a vehicle safely.

Making a Case for More Driving Training
Teen drivers interviewed for the Oregon study had two overwhelming requests of driver training - shorter, more interactive classes and more hours on the road. "It wasn't boring," one Oregon teen told the interviewers. "I had fun in there, but I didn't learn so much until I got onto the road."

Sentiments like these have prompted automakers to launch free programs to help teens gain unique, first-hand experience. Toyota developed Toyota Driving Expectations, a four-hour program consisting of multiple driving courses and classroom instruction for teens and their parents.

Ford and GHSA launched a free program called Driving Skills for Life, which combines online learning with "ride and drives" that teach skills including hazard recognition. This program allows teens to practice driving on a closed course with trained instructors and learn the key skills in a fun, high-intensity environment. Murphy said that teens gravitate toward Driving Skills for Life because of the "cool" factor. But the program is successful, he believes, because it gives them the skills they aren't likely to learn from traditional driver education. (See our article, Driving Skills for Life Teaches Teens Crucial Driving Skills.)

As much as teens enjoy learning to drive through on-the-road training, the IIHS recommends avoiding most "advanced" driving courses for beginning drivers. These courses teach skid control, high-speed maneuvering and operating on a wet surface. Why avoid them? Former IIHS researchers Allan Williams and Sue Ferguson say advanced driving courses for brand-new drivers may produce a higher crash rate by creating overconfidence or by prompting teens to look for hazardous driving opportunities to try out their freshly learned "skills." In fact, IIHS says there's no research showing these courses, which they say includes even defensive driving instruction, improve safety, and some studies actually found higher rates of crashes for those who took such courses.

But those who administer or teach such programs to teens disagree. "My response to the 'you don't show kids how to slide their car because that's all they'll go out and do,' is that it echoes the rants that you used to hear about teaching kids sex education in school," says Bill Wade, national program manager of Street Survival, the driver training sponsored by the BMW Car Club of America and Tire Rack. "The skid control and those associated skills are critical to be taught in a controlled setting because this is the only way you get exposed to this element of vehicle dynamics. As the saying goes, 'Experience is what you get right after you needed it.'"

Gordy Heil, a 16-year-old with his learner's permit in Great Falls, Virginia, took the Street Survival course recently and says he had a good time but also learned a lot.

"Once in a while one of the instructors would throw a cone at you which was supposed to be a kid or a ball, which you had to avoid while not hitting the [other] obstacles," says Heil. "Overall, it was a fun way to learn how to maneuver your car through obstacles and control it on wet pavement."

Paul Burris, who lost his son in a car crash and heads Partners for Highway Safety, started a program called Collision Avoidance Training to teach teen drivers through local police departments. Don Jones, a Knoxville, Tennessee, police captain who helps oversee a CAT program, agrees the programs do help.

"It was amazing to watch how much better the kids handle their vehicles from the morning until that afternoon," said Jones. "They really had a good grasp on vehicle dynamics and what it took to drive a car."

Parents in the Passenger Seat
Parents can and should stay involved even if they're not technically teaching basic driving skills. They should check their teen driver's progress by riding with them on weekends, between driver's ed classes and by monitoring driving later on. And whether parents abide by their state's graduated driver's licensing law or a more stringent one they've put into place at home, the 30-50 hours of supervision will go a long way toward reinforcing the classroom, computer and on-the-road lessons their teen has learned. Whether you're teaching your teen to drive or handing it over to a professional, driver's education should be a family affair.

Below are links to all of the installments in this series.

Jayne O'Donnell is an auto writer at USA Today and specializes in car safety.

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