Driving Instructors’ Own Standards In The USA

July 3, 2022

By Eddie Wren of Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.

After passing the compulsory driving test, most people never take any further training, even though driving is the most deadly, frequent activity they will ever undertake.

Ask most 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, 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 5.8s. In other words, for every 100,000 of America’s population, 14.66 people are killed in road crashes yearly. That might not sound like much, but the result is the equivalent, in the number of deaths, of a tragedy such as the World Trade Center massacre happening here every 23 days.

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, and the preventive effects of law ‘Enforcement’ is another. Still, basic driver training is vital in ‘Education,’ creating 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 straightforward. And suppose one compares the driving test in this country with that in many countries with better safety records. In that case, the driving test here is significantly less demanding than 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. Therefore, if the test were more complex, it becomes inescapable that more studies would be required for people to pass.

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

An article in the Sacramento Bee — July 3, 2005 — mentions 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 ability to drive (too much higher standards than an ordinary driving test);

  • A test of one’s instruction ability (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 a 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. Moreover, an analysis of state data indicates that turnover rates among 3,000 instructors are higher than 30 percent a year. That forces schools to scramble continually for new instructors, sometimes 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. For example, 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 to help reduce the annual carnage on America’s roads. Many road engineering features could radically be improved, and similarly, many aspects of road policing could equally be enhanced.

According to the Sacramento Bee article, California DMV officials dropped the particular behind-the-wheel test for applicants last year, saying it duplicated the test for a driver’s license. However, common sense dictates that they should 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 wealthiest nations on earth, the argument is always that it costs too much. And that 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 extraordinary 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