Participants at Ford's Driving Skills For Life learn sk... Participants at Ford's Driving Skills For Life learn skills that aren't necessarily taught in conventional driver's ed programs (Ford).
Here's one thing parents don't know: Many driver's education programs do very little to keep your teen safe on the road.

And the government says it doesn't believe driver's education is effective at all at making teens better drivers.

[This article is the second in a special series on Teen Driving Safety. Read the first installment, "Teen Drivers Making Common and Fatal Mistakes."]

"Despite widespread appeal of driver education, scientific evaluations indicate that it does not produce safer drivers," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a 2009 report. "Although it may be 'common sense' to think that driver education is the preferred way to learn how to drive, the notion that a traditional driver education course can by itself produce safer drivers is optimistic."

Given how easy it is to pass a driving test in the U.S., most driver's education programs are nothing more than a basic lesson in how to handle a car.

One of the biggest struggles teen safety advocates have is driver education: Driving schools are often run by smaller business owners and are loosely regulated. Public schools have mostly backed out of driver education. And the funding that could improve programs just isn't there, primarily because there is only spotty evidence that driver's ed works.

It's a chicken-and-egg kind of problem that will keep repeating until legislators decide it's time to tackle the issue and insist states improve driver education to where it is proved beneficial and worth supporting with tax dollars.

NHTSA has recently introduced standards that could help states improve driver's education, spelling out exactly what should be taught and emphasized. But they are not mandatory rules, and it could take years for those standards to trickle down from the federal government to states.

Until then, parents need to how to find a good school, know what skills their child will and won't learn in driver's ed, and make up the difference on their own.

Not all driving education is bad. Some schools are awful and some are excellent. Some will teach your teen how to really think about staying safe on the road, and others will spend hours of their precious training time just teaching them to parallel park--what many say is the toughest part of the driver test for a new driver. Some will teach your children how to get out of a skid, and where to put their eyes in a panic situation, while others will boast about how many of their students have passed the state driver's test (which is terrible indicator of driving skill).

"Those programs aren't doing as well as they could be because they are so focused on passing the driving test, not on giving teens the skills they need to keep them safe," says Troy Costales, vice chairman of the Governor's Highway Safety Association and the head of the Oregon highway safety office.

The challenge with driving schools

Driving schools make it tempting for parents not to question the status quo: They often pick kids up right from school and drop them off at home. They often drive kids through the same route they'll take on the driving test, to make sure their students don't fail. Anyone who has spent a morning enduring the hassle of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) does not want to have to go through that more than once.

"You would not believe the number of parents who don't want to come to our driving school because we won't pick kids up at home," says Debbie Prudhomme, owner of Training Wheels Driver Education in Minnesota and head of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas. "Parents just don't understand."

There is a wide variety of quality offered in private driving schools, Prudhomme says. And bigger doesn't necessarily mean better: Some of the smaller schools focus can offer better training than larger schools, which may be more focused on profit. Prudhomme says the best schools use nationally-recognized text books, focusing much of their energy on classroom-based instruction. They offer checklists kids can bring home to their parents to show what skills the student is mastering and which need to be improved. And they don't waste precious instruction time driving from house to house, picking up students in their driveways.

Tim Reeter of Glen Carbon, Ill., was basically happy with the driving school his 15-year-old son Cole attended. But he says there are still huge gaps in his skill level:

"They don't teach kids how to brake, so that's been something he's still learning," Reeter said. "And when he's taking off, I have to remind him he doesn't have to go from zero to the speed limit immediately."

And stopping still seems to be an issue, with Cole rolling through stop signs and sometimes failing to fully stop. Reeter has taken responsibility for a large portion of his son's driving education.

"I think he's a really good driver, I feel really comfortable with him behind the wheel," Reeter said. "It's great for me, he drives everywhere we go."

For "nuclear" families, that is a common approach. But such parental attention is not always possible for single parent families, or for new immigrant families.

The dark ages

Over the past 30 years, there have been two significant developments affecting driver's education in the U.S. – one that plunged driving schools into a national dark ages, and a sad fatal accident 28 years later that will hopefully spark a renaissance.

Struggling with accident data that showed teens accounted for one-third of fatal accidents on the road, traffic safety and road planning officials in the 1970s wanted to know what was going on.

A couple of studies came out blaming driver's education: One, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the increasing popularity of driving education in schools was to blame, because it was putting too many teens on the road. They estimated that 80% of teens who had driver's licenses would never be driving if they hadn't had easy access to education.

Then in 1976, a group called Batelle Columbus Laboratories was asked to conduct a study of 16,000 drivers in DeKalb County, Ga., for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One group of students was given 70 hours of classroom, simulation training and on-road lessons. The second group received only minimal training to pass their driver's test. And the third group received no training at all.

The study found there was little difference between all three groups: They had similar accident rates. The only major difference they found was gender: Females had lower rates of crashes than males.

The study had a monumental affect on driver's education. Instead of revamping driver's ed to make sure it was effective, it was essentially gutted. With no evidence the programs actually worked, cash-strapped public schools began dropping their programs, leaving the work to the private sector.

And for the most part, private driving schools are only loosely regulated. In some states, there are several regulatory bodies that are responsible for driving schools. Ironically, but perhaps not surprising, such bureaucracy results in less regulation, because the process for overseeing is often confusing and muddled. No one tells driving schools what to teach, or checks up to make sure they are actually teaching safe driving behavior.

That's the way it was until a Montana crash in 2003 got folks in Washington thinking about driver's ed again.

A driver's ed crash

On Jan. 23, 2003, 49-year-old Robert Selles, a teacher from Manhattan Christian School in Belgrade, Mont., loaded up a beige 1997 Oldsmobile Achieva with three students from his driving instruction class. The sky was clear, but snow earlier in the day had left slushy patches on the road.

The sun was low in the sky, and patches of the road that were in the shade of trees were quickly turning into black ice.

Montana is a snowy state. Driver's ed rules said students should still be taken out on the road during inclement weather. After all, that's the kind of situation they could face when they get their license.

Erik Eekhoff, 14, was behind the wheel. It was his third of ten lessons on the road. Two other passengers, also 14, were in the back seat. A large teal green delivery truck was heading their way down Route 347, a two-lane road just outside Belgrade. The driver said he saw the car heading towards him, going no more than 35 or 45 mph.

Then he saw the car fishtail, the truck driver told NTSB investigators. It swerved into his lane. He tried to avoid the car by steering left, but hit the car on the passenger side.

Everyone inside the Oldsmobile died at the scene. The coroner said they all died from blunt force trauma and flail wounds, which is when the rib cage fractures in more than three places.

"That was the accident that got the wheels turning again," Costales said. "The NTSB said, 'Hey, what's going on with driver's ed?' And now we're talking about it again."

What works

Experts now are gathering evidence to show that good driver's ed programs make a difference. In Oregon, Costales says his state's program is showing results.

In Oregon, the state mandates teen drivers get 50 hours of practice behind the wheel with an adult. Then they can choose to either do another 50 hours behind the wheel, or take a formal driver's ed program.

The teens who take driver's ed are getting to 10% to 12% fewer crashes, and getting 20% to 30% fewer citations. The state is one of just a handful that closely regulate and monitor driving programs.

Mike Speck, lead instructor at Ford's Driving Skills For Life – a free program offered over select weekends in 30 cities – starts his speech by telling the teens what a great driver he is. The former race car driver uses his resume to build credibility with teens. He's not afraid to let them know that he really loves driving and that he knows it can be fun to go fast.

"But the number one skill I want them to walk away with is the ability to make the right decisions," he said. "The decisions they make behind the wheel really seal their fate."

Some adults are better at teaching those lessons to kids than others, so parents need to take the driving school search seriously. Interview teachers, sit in on a class or two, and talk to former students (not just their parents – the people who took the class will know it better.)

Here are some things to look out for:

Pass/fail rate: Does the school boast that its students pass the driver's test with ease? That may be because they are teaching to the test, not teaching your child important life skills. Look for schools that aren't afraid to hold students back when they aren't ready to take the test. And steer clear of the schools that take kids driving on the roads where they will take the test.

Hours behind the wheel: Driving schools often get just 6 to 10 hours with your child in the car. Ask how those hours are spent. You want a school that spends plenty of time driving around the streets, but doesn't throw your child out onto the highway on their second or third lesson. Also, don't let your teen waste time learning how to change a tire or parallel park in driver's ed. "You've got precious little time with this student, why are you wasting time teaching them to change a tire?" Costales said. "How many deaths do you hear about from a teen changing a tire?" Get them a AAA card and a cellphone instead.

Hours in class: Driving schools should never make up their own curriculum. There are plenty of professional text books available, and schools should use them. They should include check lists that can be passed on to parents after lessons are over to show what skills your child is mastering, and which skills need improvement.

Chemistry: For years you've been assessing your children's swim teachers, soccer coaches, and violin teachers, figuring out which teachers click with your kids and which don't. Bring those skills to the driver's school. Look for a teacher your child will respect, but will not become best friends.

Look for alternate programs: Ford's Driving Skills For Life is just one example of teen driving programs that tour the country. They bring in technology that's not always available at local schools, like cars that are lifted up a bit so they skid easier. That lets the instructors teach your child how to handle an emergency skid. Other programs include BMW's Performance Driving School, which costs $495 for a one-day program and $895 for two days; Put On The Brakes, founded in 2008 by professional drag racer Doug Herbert provides teen driving training in the North Carolina region. There are other programs available throughout the country.

Next week: The teen driving series will delve into how to talk about driving with your teens so they will actually listen.

Updated on Sept. 13 to include comments from Debbie Prudhomme


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  • 151 Comments
      • 3 Years Ago
      My children attended a driving school in Moreno Valley, California. The school was upfront about the student’s requirement s and mine. Driver’s education is a team effort. The school gave my kids a good start, drove my kids in conditions that I might have normally been afraid of, prepared my kids for the DMV test and taught my kids defensive driving. The instructors and staff were professional, considerate and offered us a great experience. Food for thought to the author of this article. I have witnessed DMV examiners drive customers for 2 minutes on a drive test and then pass them. I have witnessed DMV examiners taking a student to a bank for a personal bank withdrawal and then pass them. I taught in a public school in which an English Teacher was teaching drivers education, he had no experience in the field other than the drivers ed. class he had taken when he was 16. The book he was using to teach drivers ed. was from 1983, and the DMV handbook was not even present. My point is that every system has problems and additional training often comes at a greater cost. I would not have been able to afford the cost listed in this article of $400 plus dollars. As I stated earlier drivers education is a team effort. In California the minimum requirement for minors is 6 hours with a driving school and (50) hours with Mom or Dad or someone older than 25 years of age and licensed. I think that this clearly states who has the greatest burden of training and experience for their kids’ education. We loved our driver’s education school and are glad our kids attended. They have been driving for 5 years without an accident or a ticket.
      Angela
      • 3 Years Ago
      Driving schools give beginner drivers experience behind the wheel, teaches them the driving laws, and many times, gets parents a discount on car insurance for their teen driver. It is not, nor is it meant to be, a program which magically creates good teen drivers. Only time and experience can make someone a good driver, and that experience usually includes a few fender benders.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Angela
        Angela I completely agree with you. As a former driving school owner, it is the truth that the curriculum is based on covering specific situations, not mastering them. The intent is that the student goes home and practices with parents to develop those skills. Parents have the responsibility to make sure their teen is behind the wheel EVERY time they're in the car. Practice is the only way that teen driver will improve. And just because they may pass the State test, parents should continue to drive with their new driver to make sure they aren't developing bad habits. And as far as texting, cell phones and the rest of the distractions, parents need to step up and set rules and consequences for what their teen is doing behind the wheel.
      sthmid
      • 3 Years Ago
      I learned driving by supplementing my skill by driving the family car with my parent(s) on vacations and taking on the role of "most time as driver from" age 16 to 18. Driver's ed did help, but it is the hours of experience at the wheel under all conditions that makes a person a good driver (same as for an airline pilot). It may be good luck, but I've driven now for 40 years and about 400,000+ miles without an accident that the cops had to be called for.
      lin
      • 3 Years Ago
      14?!?!?! holy cow. Montana sure starts them early. our driver's ed is still at the school and a full semester of driving. but even with that, eve we made my son drive for 3 years on his permit. He still had 2 accidents and totaled his car at the age of 18. we even made him take the Allstate program TeenSmart. I dont think the majority of kids have the reflexes, patience and attention span to defensively drive. Kids think they're invincible until something scares them into thinking differently.
      Sekinu2
      • 3 Years Ago
      So what idiot thought drivers ed was meant to make safer drivers? Drivers ed is just a program to teach kids how to correctly operate a car and how to understand the rules of the road. Only expirence and self responsibility make better drivers and thats not what drivers ed ever was to be. It is to teach vehicle operation and rules of the road thats it..Wonder how much the government wasted on that study to figure out what we already knew.
      ahfrance
      • 3 Years Ago
      As an instructor for a private driving school in the Washingon D.C.1980's, I feel what I learned from my boss, while he was "teaching me to teach" has probably saved my live several times over. The quality of the instruction depends on the quality of the instructor. Hopefully there are folks alive today who would not be , were it not for the things I taught them.
      shewhale
      • 3 Years Ago
      I just MADE my daughter take a class.........it consisted of 2 classes, on the road, 1 day, 6 hours, and $80.................she said that the TEACHER said she did good................He picked her up at a local restaurant, took her to an industrial park, and practiced Parallel Parking, then drove back to the restaurant..................when they got back, my car was already parked there.............he said, "Pull in there"..............so she went to pull in next to my car, on the right...........HE GRABBED THE STEERING WHEEL, AND TURNED IT LEFT, AND MADE HER PULL INTO A HANDICAPPED SPOT!!!!!!!!! What is the criteria for becoming a student driver TEACHER...........if that is what you call it!!!!!!!! And he said, "For you to get a discount on insurance, you need to take 3 classes".............BULLSHIT, I am not letting my child get in the car with that man, AGAIN!!!!
      rrassetrecovery
      • 3 Years Ago
      make it so these little bastards cant drive until they are 18 that might help............
      • 3 Years Ago
      For the truth about the parasite invader criminals from south of the border be sure to watch ; BORDER WARS TONITE ON NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BEGINNING AT 8 PM.
      primitiveelement
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well, it's interesting that it was a government survey! I just love them putting their two cents in AGAIN when they can't even take care of our money without throwing it down the sewer, and putting it in slush funds, truly help the impoverished instead of excuses and fake programs, and keeping our unemployment at the rate it is. No, thanks, White House, just stay out of the American family, we don't need you.
      • 3 Years Ago
      YOU NEED TO VISIT MASS. WE GOT THE BEST DEAL THE DRIVERS ED CLASS $950.00 , THE ROAD LESSONS $ 65.00 PER HOUR. ,THE CERTIFICATE PAPER $25.OO THE LICENSE $ 75.00, THE EXTRA INSURANCE YOU PAY (MOM & DAD ) $2500.00 EXTRA MIN. ON YOUR POLICY BY THE WAY. THE LOVE PRICELESS.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I have to STRONGLY disagree. At Grade A Driving Academy, we dont just teach them how to drive, we teach them life skills behind the wheel. We care about what we do, and give our students every bit of experience we have to help keep them safe and make good decisions behind the wheel. Tony Giannini Grade A Driving Academy http://www.getmypermit.net
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