Beginning in the mid-1980s, Corporate managers outsourced manufacturing jobs such as in steel and services such as call centers. School districts did the same with driver education. Higher graduation requirements and reforms that called for everyone to go to college combined to inexorable demands for reducing costs led states to cut their subsidies for driver education teachers and programs. Far more private companies now provide driver training to teenagers than schools do.
What Problems Did the Driver Education Intend To Solve?
Traffic accidents and fatalities is the short answer. From the very beginning of the 20th century, cars killed pedestrians and passengers. By the 1920s, over 15,000 Americans died in auto accidents. Like most economic, political, and social problems in the nation, Americans believed that education–like water, alcohol, and acetone–is an all-purpose solvent. So with more cars on the road, more accidents, policymakers turned to schools. With states funding parts of these programs, district after district offered driver education to prepare the young to be better drivers and thereby reduce road carnage. In teaching teenagers about how the car works, rules of the road, and giving them actual practice on streets and highways, teenagers getting state-issued driver licenses would be better drivers and accidents and fatalities would decrease. Especially as 20th century statistics on car accidents and deaths showed increasing percentages of teenagers involved in fatal accidents. That was the theory.
Driver education, then, is another instance of turning to schools to solve social problems by educating the next generation (rather than attack the actual problem directly, i.e., building safer cars and road design). Or, in the word that historian of education David Labaree coined, Americans have a habit of “educationalizing” national problems.
The first high school driver education course was taught by Amos Neyhart, a professor of engineering, at Penn State in 1934.
Usually, a car held the teacher on the passenger side, student driver, and 2-3 student observers in back seat. As driver education courses multiplied across the nation, cars with dual controls became common.
As did other ways of simulating driving.
By 1965, over 13,000 schools offered driver education for over 1.7 million students. After A Nation at Risk report came out in 1983, states ratcheted up their curriculum standards, graduation requirements and tests. College prep courses crowded the curriculum leaving little space for electives such as driver education. The number of driver education teachers and courses plummeted and the number of private companies offering courses and preparation for getting the actual driver’s license soared. Because parents had to pay extra to get their teenage sons and daughters taught how to drive, the number of teenagers getting licenses also dropped, many getting the valuable piece of paper after they turned 18.
What Did School-Sponsored Driver Education Look Like in Practice?
In most instances, students had to be 16 years old. They had classroom lessons about how cars work, road safety, and the rules that govern state licensing including the written and road tests. Behind-the-wheel experience ofdriving a car on streets and highways usually occurred during and after the school day under the supervision of a certified teacher in driver education.
Many teenagers now pay for online courses to prepare for the written test and then get actual road practice through a company. Costs vary from $250 to $500. Because of the outsourcing of driver education, there is much variation in what private vendors offer.
Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said that cutbacks [in driver education] had spawned “faster, cheaper, but not necessarily better programs.” Online programs, which are available in 15 states, he said, “are virtually unregulated.”
Occasionally, districts will ante up the money to offer such a course. But that is rare. Consider the Bellingham (WA) district.
After the state of Washington ended subsidies for driver education in 2002, parents bore the cost of their teenagers wanting a state-issued driver’s license. Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker, however, found the money in the district budget to restore the elective. He wrote parents:
This new semester-long class will allow students to take the Driver’s Safety Education course during the school day and experience the driver training portion after school and weekends. Part of the class will focus on personal finance and cover topics directly related to the details of purchasing and owning an automobile. Topics will include financial decision making, money management, spending and saving, investing, risk management and insurance.
When districts do offer the course, parents pay extra. In the Granite School District in Utah, parents pay a fee of $140 ($215 for out-of-district students) for a driver’s ed course. For that fee, the district:
… will provide the 6 hours of behind the wheel training as follows:
- Driving Range – 3 hours
- Skid Car- 20 minutes
- On the Road Driving-2 hours, 40 minutes
Driving range and skid car training will take place during the school day. Instruction will be provided by certified retirees and hourly employees. Some on-the-road driving will take place during school, but the majority of driving will be after school. The department chairperson at each school will schedule driving times for students.
Each student must pass the driver education class. Each student must pass at 80% or better on the following tests:
State written test
State driving test
Fees and Permits:
Did School-Sponsored Driver Education Work?
The outcome sought for driver education and the rationale for introducing it in schools is that those taught to drive through driver education courses would have fewer traffic accidents and deaths. At best there would be a positive correlation between those students trained in schools and the number of accidents and fatalities. Some research studies say it did and, you guessed it, some say it did not. Whether such training will reduce accidents and deaths remains unclear. See here, here, here, and here.
What state-subsidized courses have done since they were introduced before and after World War II is increase the numbers of teenagers who qualified for state driver licenses. Whether such training “worked” in reducing accidents and deaths remains uncertain.
What Has Happened to Driver Education Programs in Schools?
They’re mostly gone. Collateral damage from the curricular embrace of college for all, over the past three decades, schools dropped driver education and private companies have stepped into the burgeoning market for teenagers seeking to take and pass paper and road tests to get the state-issued license to drive.