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Teen Driving: Think Driving Schools Make Safe Drivers? Think Again

Even the U.S. government admits that driving schools have no impact on teen fatality rates

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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