Dumb and Dumber: America’s Driver Education is Failing Us All – Reference Mark


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Driver’s education is usually taught in high school health class. In those very same underfunded schools that can barely afford math and science textbooks, we are trying to teach adolescents how to pilot two-ton death machines.

In California, all that’s required to obtain a learner’s permit is 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel; a provisional license requires an additional 50 hours of supervised driving. Some states with districts too poor to offer driver’s ed allow kids to learn how to drive online. Home-schooling allows parents to vouch that their kids have the requisite knowledge to apply for a license, and little prevents parents from fudging the numbers for the required hours of driving practice, either.

An eight-year study by the University of Nebraska showed that young drivers who dodged proper driver’s education are 75 percent more likely to get a traffic ticket, 24 percent more likely to be involved in an accident causing death or injury, and 16 percent more likely to have an accident of any kind. And that’s with our bare-bones system in place.

By comparison, a German driver’s license requires a minimum of 25 to 45 hours of professional driving instruction plus 12 hours of theory and eight hours of first aid training. In other words, you know what you are doing when you get your first set of car keys. Comparable German and U.S. federal data shows that young American drivers’ injury-crash rates have declined only slightly since 1990 while young German drivers’ injury-crash rates have dropped by more than half in the same period.

How our DMVs handle failure is appalling, too. When California discovered that only 45 percent of applicants passed its written test, rather than requiring better driver education, its DMV essentially made the test easier.

In America, we treat a driver’s license as a right, not a privilege. We beta-test our children on the open road, and the results are no surprise: The fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds is triple the rate for the rest of the population, according to NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

We treat a driver’s license as a right, not a privilege. We beta-test our children on the open road.

What’s more, newly minted 16- to 17-year-olds are twice as likely to die in crashes as 18- to 19-year-olds are. How many times does a young driver’s first brush with hydroplaning or an icy road result in an accident? Was it because behind-the-wheel instruction never required such training?

Sure, there are graduated licensing laws that grant automotive privileges in stages, such as driving at night or with passengers. But is that enough? Even though vehicle safety systems have meant fewer fatalities on the road, the overall number of crashes has stayed relatively static for the past 30 years, according to NHTSA data. That means drivers aren’t improving.

This lack of road knowledge continues as people age. An online test created by an insurance clearinghouse shows that more than half of all Americans of any driving age are still unable to pass a standard rules of the road test.

The test is not hard and includes such gimmes as, “What is the safest way to cross multiple lanes to take an exit on a highway?” (Answer: One lane at a time, duh.) That said, the test did include some brainteasers such as whether you should obey a flashing red light, stop sign, steady red light, or a flag man above all the others. And there are some physics questions such as whether brake failure, driving too fast, or driving a too-heavy car is the most common cause for a vehicle to skid. (You can test your smarts at cheapcarinsurance.net and click “Rules of the Road.”)

The Cheap Insurance folks broke out the test performance data by age range, and it asserted that pretty much everyone lacks requisite automotive knowledge: Not only do Americans not know what they are doing behind the wheel, but they also don’t know they are doing it wrong.

Given that the DMV basically rubber-stamps driver’s license renewals, is it any wonder that no one bothers to brush up on their knowledge or skills? Perhaps it’s time for America to re-evaluate what is required to be allowed to pilot death machines down our nation’s roads.

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