Driver's Education Helps Reduce Teen Crash Rates

AAA research finds modest gains, but knowledge rates still 'quite low'

At a time when fewer students are participating in driver's education, a new study reaffirms the value of such classes.

An analysis conducted by AAA, the nation's largest motoring club, found that drivers' education reduces teen crash rates by 4.3 percent and lowers the number of traffic tickets received by nearly 40 percent. "One of the most common questions about drivers' ed is, 'Does it work,'" said Dr. William Van Tassel, manager of driver training programs at AAA. "We did find modest, but positive effects."

The study drew upon data collected in Oregon and Manitoba, Canada, and researchers assessed records through surveys, licensing tests, driving simulators and reviews of additional records. Conventional wisdom has always suggested that driver's ed helped produce safer drivers. Until now, Van Tassel said, researchers didn't have enough information to make precise conclusions.

In the case of the Oregon portion of the study, AAA had access to 93,942 detailed driving records from teen motorists that made it possible for deeper conclusions to be drawn. In Oregon, AAA says teen drivers who took classes had increased knowledge about graduated driving laws and safe driving practices compared to drivers who hadn't taken such classes.

Even for those who had taken courses, the study noted their overall driving knowledge levels were "still quite low."

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of unintentional death for U.S. residents between ages 15 and 24, accounting for 6,926 deaths in 2011, according to records from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Traditional driver's education has declined - the days when the high-school gym teacher taught driver's ed over the summer have faded in large part due to tightened budgets or liability concerns on the part of public schools. But Van Tassel cautions that doesn't necessarily mean the availability of programs has diminished. He said some public schools contract with private driver-training companies, and that the number of online classes is on the rise. He thinks the use of simulators could also rise.

"This was the first time we could ever use a driver simulator to assess teens as a reliable measure of performance," he said. "Before, the idea was to train, not necessarily evaluate. From a scientific and research point of view, it's pretty neat. You can sit them down in a chair and have a fairly cheap and zero-risk environment."

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