Driving Instructors’ Own Standards in the USA

July 3, 2005

By Eddie Wren, of Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.

After passing the compulsory driving test, the vast majority of people never take any further driver training throughout the remainder of their lives, despite the fact that driving is the most deadly, frequent activity they will ever undertake.

Ask the majority of these individuals how good they are at driving and an equally large majority will tell you that they are ‘good’, or words to that effect.

So why, then, does the USA have such an appallingly poor rate of deaths, as a proportion of the population, when compared to other developed nations?1  For 2003, for example, the nation had a per capita death rate of 14.66 — slightly more than two and a half times worse than the leading countries, which had rates in the 5.8’s.  In other words, for every 100,000 members of America’s population, 14.66 people are killed in road crashes each year. That might not sound like much but the result is the equivalent, in the number of deaths, to a tragedy such as the World Trade Center massacre happening here every 23 days.

Clearly, the overall standard of driving is not the only contributory factor in the USA’s 43,000 annual road deaths  — road and vehicle ‘Engineering’ form one key factor, the preventive effects of law ‘Enforcement’ are another, but basic driver training is a vital element in the ‘Education’ which forms the third of the most commonly cited ‘E’s of road safety.

Yet if one asks virtually any driver in the States whether they thought the driving test was difficult, a large proportion will say the exact opposite — that it was in fact very easy.  And if one compares the driving test in this country with that in many of the countries that have much better safety records, it is clear that the driving test here is significantly less demanding than it is elsewhere.

Does this matter?

Sadly, commercial driver training in any country is driven by people’s desire merely to pass a test, with scant regard for safety in the longer term, so they want the minimum number of lessons at the least possible expense. If the test were to be made more difficult, it becomes an inescapable fact that more lessons would be required in order for people to pass.

Logically, this will improve the standard of each individual’s driving, but there is a truly vital element that has not yet been mentioned — the standard of driving instructors.

In an article in the Sacramento Bee — July 3, 2005 — it is mentioned that California state qualifications for driving instructors (quote) “are basic: a high school education, a driver’s license, 60 hours of training and passing a written test. DMV officials last year dropped the special behind-the-wheel test for applicants, saying it duplicated the test for a driver’s license. Drug tests are not required. Criminal convictions do not automatically disqualify a job candidate.”

On the face of it the training aspects in California might sound acceptable, but once again comparisons are called for.  In Britain, for example — the country which has had the safest roads more times than any other country in recent years — the average training period for a new driving instructor lasts several months and involves three demanding tests2 which are all carried out by national examiners from the Driving Standards Agency:

  • Knowledge of traffic law and safe driving (computerized test);

  • A test of one’s own ability to drive (to much higher standards than an ordinary driving test);

  • A test of one’s actual ability to instruct (with a test examiner role-playing as the student driver).

British driving instructors are also graded — the highest level being grade 6 — and by law are re-tested, usually every two years.

By comparison, the Sacramento Bee article stated:

The job of driving instructor in California today is easy to get, and not highly valued. Schools sometimes pay instructors beginning salaries under $10 an hour, less than some supermarket baggers earn. Turnover rates among the state’s 3,000 instructors are higher than 30 percent a year, an analysis of state data indicates. That forces schools to scramble continually for new instructors, at times scraping the bottom of the job-market talent pool.

Of course it is easy for politicians to claim that improved driver training standards would be too expensive or that improving the regime is outside their budgetary reach, but this is a deadly cop-out. The cost of crashes, both at local and societal levels, is truly enormous. The National Highways Traffic Safety Administration states that each person killed on America’s roads costs the country around $1 million, so a hefty proportion of $43 billion would become available each year if the annual death toll were to be cut significantly, for starters — and this calculation of course omits the aggregate expense that could be saved each year by reducing the much higher numbers of people who are ‘just’ seriously injured.

Driving standards are not the only thing that can be enhanced in order to help reduce the annual carnage on America’s roads. There are many road engineering features that could radically be improved, and similarly there are many aspects of road policing that could equally be enhanced.

According to the Sacramento Bee article, referred to above, California DMV officials last year dropped the special behind-the-wheel test for applicants, saying it duplicated the test for a driver’s license. Common sense dictates that they should in fact have gone the other way by increasing the standard for driving instructors’ behind-the-wheel tests and making these people prove that they are, themselves, good drivers and that they are truly capable of teaching our young people not just enough basics to pass a test but also enough to give them a much better chance of simply staying alive.

Yet despite America being one of the richest nations on earth, the argument is always that it costs too much. And that simply leaves us with the question: how much are American lives worth?

After all, if the USA could match the ‘per capita’ death rate in Britain an astonishing 25,750 American lives would have been spared in 2003 alone.


The writer of this article has lengthy and in some ways perhaps unparalleled experience in driver training, traffic law enforcement and other aspects of road safety. Click here for details.



Footnotes and References

  1. www.driveandstayalive.com/info%20section/statistics/stats-multicountry-percapita-2003.htm
  2. www.dsa.gov.uk/Category.asp?cat=40