Does Driver’s Education Work?

Fifteen-year-old Laura Yost died on September 23 from injuries she sustained after the teenage driver of the car she was riding in turned left in front of an oncoming dump truck. A few days later, fifteen-year-old Braden Rock died after his 17-year-old sister turned left in front of an oncoming car. The next morning, 11–year-old Michael Burgess was walking across the street to board his school bus when he was struck by a car driven by a 16-year-old and seriously injured. Many have questioned in the wake of these events how such injuries might be prevented in the future.

Some have raised concerns about the legislature’s decision last session to eliminate state funding for local driver’s education programs beginning with the 2015-16 fiscal year. Yet all of the teenager drivers involved in these accidents successfully completed driver’s education, and it obviously did not inoculate them from negligent driving. Perhaps more such accidents would occur if there were no formalized driver’s education training.  Unfortunately, despite the millions spent on driver’s education programs in North Carolina every year for decades, the simple truth is that we have no idea whether driver’s education has any effect on teen driving safety.

There is no data.  The General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division (PED) submitted a lengthy report to the legislature last March recommending that it strengthen the accountability of the statewide driver education program by requiring statewide performance measures to assess its effectiveness and efficiency. The report contains a blistering review of the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) oversight and management of driver’s education. The report concluded that DPI did not collect sufficient and reliable data to determine the efficiency and effectiveness of driver education, did not have a uniform method to deliver driver education statewide, and did not monitor local instructors. Among the findings reported were that 46% of students attempting the DMV license test from 2007 through 2013 failed the test—including students making multiple attempts.  All of these students had successfully completed driver’s education.

What does work? While North Carolina’s accident and fatality rates for teen drivers remains high, teen traffic injury and fatality rates in North Carolina and nationwide have declined substantially over the past decade. That decline is attributed in large measure to graduated driver’s licensing, of which novice driver education is a part. However, research suggests that components of graduated licensing other than formalized driver education have accounted for the reduction. Namely, reduced accident rates have been associated with delaying unsupervised teen driving, increasing hours of mature adult supervised behind-the-wheel experience, limiting nighttime driving, and limiting novice teen drivers to no more than one teen passenger.

The Center for the Study of Young Drivers, part of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, says that most novice drivers don’t have enough practical experience when they are first licensed.  Indeed, the Center characterizes the limited experience teens gain in standard driver education programs as “not even enough for novice drivers to become minimally competent, much less proficient.” The Center states that additional research is needed to determine how much driving experience is enough, noting that one study found a decrease in crash rates among teens who amassed about 118 hours of supervised driving practice before being licensed.

There’s an app for that. The Center has developed a smartphone application, Time to Drive, to support supervisors of teen drivers. The app records the amount of driving and conditions, and generates a log that drivers can provide to DMV, keeps track of “hard stops,” and encourages the parent and teen to meet driving goals.

Parents can supervise even when they aren’t in the car. The Center suggests that parents can also play an important role after their teen begins to drive unsupervised by, for example, negotiating a parent-teen driving agreement that clearly spells out the expectations and responsibilities of parents and teens and using devices, such as DriveCam, that allow vehicle information and driver behavior to be recorded and monitored.

The Time to Drive webpage has many other helpful hints for parents, including advice about what kind of vehicles are best for a novice driver.

The entire community is looking for a solution, and advice from the experts seems a good place to start.