On Trial

Standards for Driver Education in the USA

National Transportation Safety Board

NTSB Conference Center, Washington DC

October 28-29, 2003

Day One – Morning

Many reports show no evidence that Driver Education actually benefits young drivers in terms of any reduction in crashes or casualties. And Driver Education is not an effective substitute for supervised, practical driving experience.

These were just two of the points made by the first speaker at the NTSB Public Forum on Driver Education and Training — Dr. Jim Nichols — who also quoted the late Professor Pat Waller, of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, who said: “It is ridiculous to assume that thirty hours Driver Education is going to affect driver safety.”

But the argument wasn’t one-sided. Some later speakers at the Washington DC conference rallied around the educationalist flag.

The catalyst which brought about this event was a tragic accident ten months ago — January 2003 — in Montana, in which three young students and their 49-year-old Driver Education teacher all died when their car got into the path of an oncoming tractor/semi trailer (a.k.a. an ‘articulated wagon’ in other countries). The car driver was just 14 years old.

“In Driver Education we have made many big mistakes and the biggest was to overstate our effectiveness,” said Dr. Allen Robinson, Director of the Highway Safety Center at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “Early claims were fifty percent then ten percent reductions in teen fatalities but clearly both of these claims were ridiculous. No one factor can cause such reductions.”

The greatest benefit of Graduated Driver Licensing, he added, is that it has a combination of factors which work together to enhance the safety of young drivers.

Sean McLaurin, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was swiftly able to sober the mood of the forum by repeating one statistic that most of the delegates would already have known: From 1999 through 2002, almost exactly 26,000 teenagers were killed on America’s roads.

“It is a tragedy,” said David Huff, of Montana Driver Education, later, “that we are losing young soldiers in Iraq. But it is an even greater tragedy that we turn a blind eye to the [much larger] number of young people that are killed every day on our highways.

“Some school sports programs cost parents $900 and they willingly pay, but many parents complain to me because they had to pay $300 towards driving lessons!”

“If you ask teens why they are doing Driver Education, more than ninety percent of them will say: ‘So that I can get a driver’s license.’ Most of the rest will say: ‘So that I don’t crash Dad’s car.’ Almost none of them even consider safety.

“Two studies into Driver Education by the NHTSA were disappointing,” he continued, “and they led to the eventual end of the Agency’s use of ‘402’ funds to support the Driver Education program.”

But at this point Mr. McLaurin raised what is undoubtedly the greatest paradox and indeed the greatest frustration of the whole issue: “Some school sports programs cost parents $900 and they willingly pay, but many parents complain to me that they had to pay $300 towards driving lessons!”  It would appear that many parents don’t recognize the futility of sporting skills — or music, or drama, or even academic prowess itself — if, for want of better training, their child is killed in a road accident. And, tragically, this happens several thousand times a year.

Driver Education is not going away, McLaurin assured the delegates, but ways to improve it must be found. “Would you let someone re-plumb your house if they only had thirty hours’ classroom and six hours’ practical training as a plumber?

“It is only after a kid has learned that the brake pedal is on the left, and the gas pedal is on the right, and how to stay off the sidewalk that they can start to absorb driving advice in any greater depth.”

In the subsequent ‘question and answer’ session, Mr. McLaurin was asked about standardizing driving tests in the USA, especially as some places give tests where the new driver does not even have to drive on a public road and merely has to drive around a parking lot.

“There are as many systems as there are states, and even counties,” he responded. “It is needed, but in the current political climate it is not going to happen. We definitely need it.”

International comparisons for driver training and testing were in order.  Dr. Stefan Siegrist, from the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention told us all that there is evidence of benefits from increased training under controlled circumstances and from the introduction of what he called ‘second phase training.’

“Two-phase training,” he told us, “is used in six European countries and it is giving particularly good results in Finland.”  After classroom and behind-the-wheel training, students take a written test and a driving test, after which they receive a provisional driver’s license. But only after further compulsory, theoretical and practical training can they apply for a full driver’s license.

When asked, Dr. Siegrist told the delegates that driving tests in Europe are much more comprehensive and difficult than those in the USA, but he added that this in itself was not the cause of the improved safety results, rather it was the fact that the harder tests force instructors to do a much better job.

Choosing the most appropriate outcome measure is important, from the public health perspective, Dr. Siegrist said. And he added that the number of injuries and deaths per population and year is the most suitable method.

…one speaker’s surprising claim that “[America’s] fatality rate is much better than in any other country,” was wildly inaccurate and is likely to induce apathy when the exact opposite response is urgently needed.

It is this comparative measuring system that puts America’s casualty situation in perspective. The Brussels-based ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD), administers the ‘International Road Traffic and Accident Database’ (IRTAD) for this very reason. The Database shows relevant statistics from 28 OECD member countries, and the USA is in a very poor 23rd place with a death rate of 15.2 per one-hundred-thousand people, by comparison with the best countries’ rates of around 6 per hundred-thousand.

Using the above comparative measurement, it is clear that one speaker’s surprising claim that “[America’s] fatality rate is much better than in any other country,” was wildly inaccurate and is likely to induce apathy when the exact opposite response is urgently needed.

Day One – Afternoon

State Programs were the topic after lunch, and Elizabeth Weaver-Shepard was first up, on behalf of the Idaho Department of Education.

“Idaho would like to see national standards for Driver Education,” she said, early in her presentation. “Driver Education lessons have been pushed out of the school day and so they start as soon as 6am and run as late as 9pm,” she added later.

“Commercial driving schools [that provide Driver Education] follow no state requirements in terms of curriculum and standards. I believe [this should be regulated].”

Mrs. Weaver-Shepard presented a good case for Driver Education but one point on which some delegates – the writer included – disagreed with her was her stated belief that reductions in crashes or fatalities are not a valid criterion by which to judge the success or otherwise of Driver Ed.

David Huff made an early comment that “Successful Driver Education must address not only the needs of teenagers but also the lifelong teaching of parents – the role models.”

“Driver Education in the United States is deplorable!” he added, with obvious feeling. “To overcome existing shortfalls, there must exist:

  • A clear definition of a model driver
  • A learner-centered curriculum
  • Standards and programs for teacher preparation
  • An aligned licensing process
  • Program standards for all programs
  • State oversight and management
  • Accountability, corrective measures, and consequences
  • Lifelong learning
  • Other education messages
  • Federal policy and fiscal support

“Much Driver Education [in the USA] today is based on archaic systems,” he said.

John Harvey, of the Transportation Safety Division, Oregon (ODOT-TSD), was next up.

“We want the safest transportation system in the world – just like everyone else does,” he said at the outset.

“Ninety three percent of crash causation is driver error… Ninety two percent of Oregonians [when polled] stated that Driver Education should be available in all high schools…

“Since the introduction of Graduated Driver Licensing in Oregon, the death and injury rate for sixteen-year-old drivers has fallen by thirty six percent.

“We need lifelong learning for a lifetime of risk management.”

The speaker on behalf of Vermont had been unavoidably delayed but his presentation was made on his behalf and contained the following points:

— Vermont is unique in that it requires Driver Education to be available in all high schools, and it is free!

— Every Driver Education teacher has to be re-examined every seven years

— The downside is that the state still only pays $71 towards the costs for each student, the same as they used to pay in 1966! That was 86% of the cost in 1966 but only 21% of the current cost.

— Vermont’s key commitment is making teens’ lives a greater priority than issuing driver’s licenses.

Day Two – Morning

ADTSEA’s current ‘Teacher of the Year,’ Debbie Cottonware, opened the batting and stated her desire that road safety and driver safety should become an intrinsic part of basic education for K–12 schooling (i.e. Kindergarten through to 12th Grade).

“Our country went to war over ‘nine-eleven’ but what are we doing about the almost seven thousand teenagers who are killed on our roads every year?”

Later, she added comments on the attitude that causes so much of the problem: “Parents want mobility for their kids cheaply, easily, and fast… The private interest is in mobility; the public interest is in safety.”

Steve Cubelka, from Delaware, spoke next and added to Ms. Cottonware’s comments.

“My own concern is the remarkable lack of hours ‘behind the wheel’ [that a student driver gets] with a qualified instructor, before the test. This is typically 3-4½ hours compared with what, in other countries?” he said. “My allied concern is the apparent un-comprehensive driver training that Driver Education teachers receive, themselves.”

At this point in the forum, it could be said that two well-meaning and thoroughly honest students who spoke shot the proponents of Driver Education in the foot. Kayla Craddick, from Lubbock, Texas, came first, but in among all her good comments about Driver Ed. she stated that she “learned more about [her] instructor and his funny stories than [she] did about driving.” And that she “had to learn basic things later that [she] should have been taught.” And “Some areas were covered too quickly. It was assumed that [she] already knew things.”

She delivered the coup de grâce when she said “I didn’t even have to do all my required driving time.”

Miss Craddick, however, then turned her situation to advantage and gave a very though-provoking list of things that could be done to improve Driver Education from the point of view of a student driver:

  • More driving time should be required with parents or instructor
  • The D.E. teacher should let parents know what aspects their child is having difficulty with so that it may be practiced
  • Instruction should touch on related subjects such as road rage, the dangers of over-correcting, bad weather driving, aspects of defensive driving, etc.
  • Students should be tested on actual situations
  • Higher scores should be required for a test pass (She had commented earlier that the test was too easy.)
  • The age at which a license could be obtained should be raised
  • It should be made clear to students that driving is a privilege that can easily be taken away
  • Instructors should be made more accountable
  • Students should be shown more videos and told more real-life stories (She added that “kids are more likely to listen to their peers than to adults so kids’ own stories should be on videos.”)
  • Police officers should be asked to attend Driver Ed. classes to talk about driving laws, etc.

Brad Wells spoke next.

“When I was sixteen I went into Driver Education to get my license. That was all I was there for,” he said. “I had fun – it was a fun class. It won’t put you to sleep like math and English!”

He told the delegates that he didn’t like the way the material was presented and that the text book seemed out of date; it seemed “eighties.” And he added that the things presented “seemed so easy for something so important.”

Mr. Wells was later asked how much time he had spent driving the car, with his instructor. He replied “After twenty hours in class, I did four hours [driving] with the instructor but it was just driving around. I learned much more from my parents than I did from the instructor. I learned how to drive on freeways from my Dad. We drive into Salt lake City a lot.”

He, too, commented on what he felt was needed:

  • More use of modern technology
  • More parental involvement (and parents must be made aware of their responsibility as role models)
  • Tighter enforcement of laws, otherwise kids hear lots of empty threats – they learn that there’s no disciplining

He also commented on driving itself, from a teenage boy’s point of view:

  • Things aren’t the same when Mom and Dad aren’t watching (the stated implication being that rules swiftly go out of the window)
  • A young driver’s behavior changes depending on the type of passenger they have in the car
  • Many teens think they are immortal – “It’s never gonna happen to them; they [think they] are good drivers!”
  • Many parents don’t realize the impact they have as model drivers (over the kid’s lifetime, not just the last few months before the test)
  • Some teens don’t think that driving laws apply to them. They think they can get out of anything.

Tellingly, Mr. Wells finished his presentation with the comment: “As one of the things I’ve done, in the National Student Safety Program, we did a mock car crash. We even had a helicopter out there. But a lot of kids just laughed it off. They still spun donuts on the parking lot – they still sped down bus lanes.”

The eternal challenge faced by road safety educators around the world had come to the fore once again.

As hard as the upper echelons of ADTSEA are undoubtedly working to improve the effectiveness and image of Driver Education in the USA, it must have been aggravating for them to hear the shortcomings outlined by these two young people.

Dr. Alan Williams, Chief Scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, stated that courses such as skidding are becoming more popular yet evidence from around the world shows that they actually have an adverse effect on safety, presumably through encouraging over-confidence. 

Dr. Gerald Donaldson, Senior Research Director, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, confirmed that advanced skills training for younger drivers lead to higher crash rates because of over-confidence.

The second session of the morning started with a presentation by Dr. Randy Thiel, current president of ADTSEA, who earned his Ph.D. in Traffic Safety from Texas A&M University.

He raised the topic of so-called advanced driving skills and raised the question of what these should include and whether they should be offered to novices or held back until drivers had more experience.

[Writer’s comment: The phrase “advanced driving skills,” as used in America, can be seen as misleading in an international context, for two reasons. Firstly, advanced driving – as taught elsewhere – consists primarily of teaching a much higher level of anticipation, planning and crisis avoidance, rather than the crisis escape techniques, such as skid correction, that tend to be offered in the USA. Secondly, advanced driving, per se, is taught on public roads not on private ground such as racecourses, otherwise the vital anticipation and planning factors are largely lost.]

Two subsequent speakers addressed Dr. Thiel’s comments.  Dr. Alan Williams, Chief Scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, stated that courses such as skidding are becoming more popular yet evidence from around the world shows that they actually have an adverse effect on safety, presumably through encouraging over-confidence. Dr. Gerald Donaldson, Senior Research Director, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, confirmed that advanced skills training for younger drivers lead to higher crash rates because of over-confidence.

Mr. Keith Russell, the executive director of the Driving School Association of the Americas, was next to address the delegates. He stated that there are problems with Driver Education in the public school and private school systems. Twenty three states, he told us, have no Driver Education at all, and in some of those states that do, the standard is poor. He also addressed the point that road test standards vary greatly, from one state to another.

The DSAA want a national mandate for Driver Education. They also wish to see two-segment driver education – the first part to focus on maneuvers and compliance, and the second part on cognitive skills, risk recognition and behavioral modification.

A national standard for road testing and a national mandate for safer vehicles are also on the list of DSAA goals.

“It is important people understand that Driver Education is only a starting point from which to begin a lifetime of learning to drive.  This naturally ensures our independence and all of the freedoms we hold dear,” said Mr. Russell.

“We [also] need public service announcements, just like we used to have when we were kids. We need them around the clock. We need to let people know how many are being killed and injured [in road crashes],” he added.

Mr. Wayne Tully, CEO of the National Driver Training Institute, said: “Driver Education and a test pass give parents and teens a false sense of security… The biggest mistake in the Driver Education industry is the concept that you can teach a young person to drive safely with just six hours behind the wheel… Student drivers should have at least fifty hours behind the wheel.

The drift of Tully’s general remarks were echoed by the next speaker, Frederick Mottola, executive director of the National Institute of Driver Behavior, who said that most drivers have all the manipulative skills necessary to drive a vehicle but that what they don’t have are the cognitive abilities.

Day Two – Afternoon

Troy Costales is the Transportation Safety Division Manager for Oregon, and the Governors’ Highway Safety Association representative for the state. He got to the crux of the matter when he said: “I suggest to you that Graduated Driver Licensing is the last breath of life for Driver Education. If we don’t take advantage of it we may lose it forever… The Governors’ Highway Safety Association firmly believes that the time is right to re-focus on Driver Education.

“Somebody, somewhere, has to be charged with the responsibility, at a national level…

“We must change the culture of what it is to be a teen driver in this nation. It is not a right of passage. It needs to be earned.”

Mr. Charles Butler, who has been with the American Automobile Association since 1976, gave a detailed summary of AAA policy. It included many pertinent points but the two most in line with the direction of this summary were:

  • To increase instructional focus on safer driving practices, and
  • To implement uniform instructor qualification standards

He also outlined some AAA research, giving the principle causes for young driver crashes:

  • 44% involve visual errors
  • 23% involve attention
  • 21% involve excess speed
  • 10% involve poor judgment of space
  • 9% involve emergency situations
  • 8% involve [a lack of] basic control

Dr. Alan Williams (mentioned above) was the next speaker and his international knowledge of the subject was impressive.  He was followed by Mr. Chuck Hurley, of the National Safety Council, who said: “…Graduated Licensing has proven effective where other methods have not.” And he added: “Ticketing and license sanctions are a good way of controlling [inappropriate] progression to a license.”

Mr. Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said that, in the context of driver training, the USA was “faster, cheaper, but not necessarily better.”  He gave a detailed insight into the role of the Foundation and added that it is currently evaluating a “good driver incentive” program administered by the CAA Alberta Motorists Association, which rewards young drivers with unblemished records, by means of significant cuts in insurance premiums.

Dr. Gerald Donaldson (see above) of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said that the organization is not against Driver Education but considers that up till now the system has not been innovative. ‘One size does not fit all.’

The afternoon’s panel of speakers was then collectively asked their opinion regarding the safest minimum age for driving.

“Eighteen, but politically it won’t happen,” replied Dr. Donaldson.

“The first few months are dangerous, whatever the age,” said Mr. Butler. But Chuck Hurley challenged this.

“No!” he said. “Higher is better. Sixteen would be my answer politically, but Graduated Licensing is the answer. If we could raise the age to seventeen we would save a lot of kids.”

Dr. Williams added: “In Europe [where the age limit is generally eighteen], they say that inexperience is the key. In the USA we say that age is more important. We have to work on both aspects.”

They were then asked what they individually hoped the NTSB would do, following the forum. Their responses, below, are summarized comments, not verbatim quotes.

Troy Costales:  ‘Publish a document and request swift responses from relevant bodies. Every wasted day equals ten more dead teenagers.’

Charles Butler:  ‘Emphasize that road crashes are our biggest health threat.’

Alan Williams:  ‘The NTSB must highlight scientifically proven ways that Driver Education can go.’

Chuck Hurley:  ‘Promote Driver Education as a good component of Graduated Driver Licensing.’

Peter Kissinger:  ‘Turn this event into a sustained process.’

Gerald Donaldson:  ‘I agree with Chuck Hurley’s comments.’

“Parents don’t realize the major risk their kids are subject to. They think it’s drugs but the most dangerous one is cars – the number one killer.”

In the context of new, scientific and statistical data, the writer felt that the closing session of the forum – ‘Current Research’ – was somewhat disappointing, because there wasn’t much!  Dr. Jean Shope, however – Senior Research Scientist and Director of Social and Behavioral Analysis at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) – proved to be an excellent closing speaker.

A full transcription of the entire forum, including Dr. Shope’s presentation will eventually be made available via the NTSB website — the document you are now reading is only a summary, from just one delegate’s perspective — but Dr. Shope made two comments which served well to summarize the whole event:

  • “America has a bias towards mobility that has obscured safety considerations,” and
  • “Parents don’t realize the major risk their kids are subject to. They think it’s drugs but the most dangerous one is cars – the number one killer.”



Every possible care has been taken, but if you were at the NTSB forum and find any errors in this summary, please contact us

Drive and Stay Alive, however, remains acutely concerned that a serious error of fact was stated at the forum and now appears in the second paragraph on page number 34 (document page 37) of the official transcript, where Dr. Allen Robinson states:

The fatality rate of drivers in the United States is far better than any other country. You know, sometimes we don’t step back and look at our successes. Even though our fatality rate is much better than any other country, it’s not satisfactory to us.”

We have pondered long and hard whether to publish this excerpt from the official transcript, and we do so not as any form of attack on Dr. Robinson but to combat the dangerous and seemingly common misapprehension that America’s roads are the safest when in fact they are a very long way short of that status.

The most comprehensive tabulation of comparative, international road casualty data is to be found on the International Road Traffic and Accidents Database (IRTAD) and not only does it show that the USA actually lies in 24th position out of 30 countries for the per capita death rate, and in 10th position out of 24 countries for the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) death rate (2002 data), but in addition, a study of the historical data shows that America’s position in these results has remained relatively unchanged since at least 1988. Indeed, of the 24 countries for which advances can be measured over the period 1992-2001, the USA made the least progress of any, having a reduction in the overall per capita death toll of just 4 percent, compared to reductions of up to 39 percent in the “other countries” to which Dr. Robinson seemingly refers.

We are making these comments not to cause offence but to make the point that as long as the seemingly common  yet entirely erroneous belief exists that America has the safest roads, the more likely it is that complacency will have an adverse effect on public perception and political actions.