How Useful Is Driver's Education?
The future of driver’s education is still unclear as state lawmakers continue to haggle over a budget. Senate leaders want to stop funding the program and possibly do away with requiring it for 16 and 17 year-olds to get a license. Many assume driver's ed turns out safer drivers, but research shows that’s not necessarily true.
Every year about 120,000 teenagers in North Carolina spend 30 hours in a classroom learning about driving. They spend another six hours in the car with an instructor. That’s pretty standard for drivers ed programs across the country. About half of states require it to get a license before the age of 18.
“Driver’s ed can be useful in helping teens learn basic driving skills,” says Russ Rader with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that driver's ed has been effective in reducing crash risks for teens.”
That’s the conventional wisdom in traffic safety circles. Rader says that’s because the studies show teen driving safety isn’t about skills. It’s about attitudes and maturity.
“Teens overestimate their skills with driving and they underrate the risks and they’re more likely to take risks behind the wheel,” says Rader.
He says the numbers show a better approach to improve safety is to raise the age to get a license to 17, like New Jersey, or only allow adult passengers to ride with those drivers under 18 as part of a state’s graduated licensing program.
The UNC Highway Research Safety Center helped design North Carolina’s system.
“There’s an extended year-long learners stage that teens need to be supervised by a parent. Once they get their license, there’s certain restrictions to try to keep teens out of high-risk settings, like driving at night time or with a car full of friends, situations that we know are very dangerous,” says Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the center.
Among 16-year-old drivers, the center found crashes dropped by a third after graduated licensing was put in place. North Carolina was one of the first adopters of the system in 1997 and now all states have some version of it.
“It’s been the closest thing we’ve had to a silver bullet to improving teen driver safety and, unfortunately, we haven’t figured out the next great thing, but we’re working on it,” says Goodwin.
He agrees it’s not clear driver's ed makes teens safer drivers, but he says it’s been an important part of the state’s approach to ensuring 16 and 17 year-olds have a lot of driving experience before they go it alone.
“The concern is: if you tinker with that system, what’s going to happen? We don’t know. Things were headed in a good way and it would be a shame to have all that progress interrupted,” says Goodwin.
House and Senate leaders have both said they’re closer to finding a resolution on driver's ed. House leaders want to continue requiring and subsidizing it, but look at ways to cut the costs by using online courses. House Speaker Tim Moore said if that doesn’t convince Senate leaders, they’re welcome to ride with his 15 year old.