Ellen Freeman Roth                      

January 25, 2009

Driver education needs major tuneup

My son and daughter told me that students in their driver education program spent most of their 30 classroom hours texting friends and doing homework.

The classes are useless, they each told me, and when I ranted that the classes are important, my daughter retorted, “You just don’t get it.”

I got it when I attended the state-mandated, two-hour parent curriculum. For 10 minutes, the teacher reviewed the laws concerning the junior operator license, then for an hour and 50 minutes he detailed his personal driving history (which included extensive drag racing as a teen).

And the driving lessons? The instructor told my daughter she was almost ready to get her license. That was around the time my daughter nearly drove us into an oncoming car when she failed to yield on a left turn.

Driver education programs are licensed by the state Registry of Motor Vehicles, and many programs should have expired years ago. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cited motor-vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds nationwide. That age group has the highest fatal crash rate of any age group. Nearly 3,500 15- to 20-year-old drivers were killed and another 272,000 were injured in motor-vehicle crashes in 2006, the NHTSA told Congress.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that lives are saved with graduated driver licensing such as Massachusetts’ junior operator license, which imposes curfews and passenger restrictions on young drivers. But could we do better if those drivers were more prepared to take the wheel?

Though the driving instructor had given my daughter a green light to take her licensing road test, I didn’t. (Cue daughter gnashing her teeth.) I wanted her to get more experience behind the wheel and that included taking an advanced driving skills course. I signed us both up for a four-hour crash-prevention course, In Control Advanced Driver Training.

During the brief and engaging classroom instruction alternating with behind-the-wheel drills, no students texted friends or did homework. In a training area under supervision - as they say, don’t try this on your own - we practiced heart-racing highway speed panic stops and emergency lane changes, feeling the seat belts lock and cars shake.

There’s such intense braking and swerving in the drills that the practice cars need fresh tires every six days.

We learned the danger of tailgating by driving beside a pace car at what we’d considered a safe distance but in reality would have ended with a hearse ride for each of us. The takeaway: Stay at least three seconds behind other cars.

In early drills we sometimes hit the cones - markers for would-be people, vehicles or trees. By practicing each drill we all improved our reaction times and handling.

The NHSTA is exploring new guidelines for driver education program content, delivery and quality control. But the Registry of Motor Vehicles shouldn’t wait to overhaul standards and licensing of driver education. It’s time to buckle down, because drivers education programs that drive our teens up the wall in class may be doing the same on the road.