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Effectiveness and role of driver education and training in a graduated licensing system: Summary

By: D. R. Mayhew and H. M. Simpson

Date: Friday, 27. April 2012

A report prepared by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, Ottawa, Canada K2P-0B4. Supported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

This Executive Summary is available in hard copy from:
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
1005 N. Glebe Rd.
Arlington, VA 22201

Below is the Summary of the report. The full report, in two parts, is available on


The safety impact of driver education and training

The role of driver education and training


The genesis for this report is the link between the formal education and training of young drivers and their licensing. The first of these systems has endeavored to teach the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed for safe driving; the latter has endeavored to ensure that this skill set has been acquired.

A controversial issue for decades, the relationship between education/training and licensing has recently become the subject of renewed debate, primarily as a result of a relatively new system of licensing called graduated licensing, which involves a phased entry into full driving privileges. In some of the jurisdictions that have introduced graduated licensing, education/training has been given a very prominent and significant role-its completion reduces the length of time the young driver must comply with the restrictions imposed by the graduated licensing system.

Implicit in this "time discount" is the assumption that the education/training provides safety benefits equivalent to those that would have accrued from gaining experience under the restrictions imposed by the graduated licensing system. This is an important assumption that should be carefully evaluated before it becomes an automatic feature of new laws.


Given that there is a precedent for the practice of incorporating education/training into a graduated licensing system, it is likely that many other jurisdictions will consider such a feature when adopting this new licensing system. Accordingly, it is timely to examine the justification for such a practice. This is the primary purpose of the present report.

However, an examination of the role that driver education/training might play in a graduated licensing system requires, as a precursor, an evaluation of the benefits of formal instruction per se. Accordingly, this report begins with a review of the historical and contemporary empirical evidence on the effectiveness of driver training/education before it considers the role that driver education/training can or should play in a graduated licensing system.

The safety impact of driver education and training

The report first examines the effectiveness of traditional driver education, motorcycle rider education and advanced training courses in reducing the collision involvement of new drivers. Empirical literature form around the world is reviewed. This review takes the position that the principal goal of driver instruction is to produce "safer" drivers, defined in terms of collision involvement, i.e., drives exposed to formal instruction should have lower crash rates than those who do not receive such instruction. This perspective is certainly consistent with the stated objectives of driver education and training as well as with the support it has received.

Key findings

The DeKalb County project-conducted in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s to evaluate the effectiveness of a comprehensive driver education program-stands as the most large scale, well-designed and ambitious effort to assess the impact of formal instruction. Data from that study have been the object of intense scrutiny and sophisticated re-analysis over the years. Despite the different methods and statistical procedures that have been applied to the data, however, the findings have been extremely consistent and disappointing to the driver education community-driver education was not associated with reliable or significant decreases in crash involvement.

This conclusion has not been altered by the results of contemporary evaluation studies of other driver educator programs that have been conducted since then. Studies in the United States, Sweden and Australia suggest that driver education produces no beneficial advantage in reducing collisions compared to informal training. There is one apparent exception to this. A study in Quebec, Canada suggests that mandatory driver education did have a small beneficial effect on collision rates. However, this differential was offset by the increased collision rates that accrued from earlier licensure-a by-product of the mandatory training. Earlier licensure as a result of driver education programs is a common finding.

Collectively, the results provide little support for the safety benefits of formal driver educator. The same can be said for formal rider instruction (motorcycle training). A review of the evaluation research conducted in three countries-the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom-provides no compelling evidence that rider training is associated with reductions in crashes.

On a more positive note, some beneficial effects have been observed form advanced skill training, although the benefits vary as a function of the type of program or skill as well as the age and gender of the driver. There is reasonably compelling evidence that remedial advanced skill training for motorcyclists, who failed their licensing test, has significant safety benefits. Unknown at this time, however, is whether these positive benefits would hold for those riders who already have the skills necessary to pass the test.

There is also evidence that training in nighttime driving can produce reasonably long-term safety benefits among male drivers.

On the other hand, skid training, a very popular feature of advanced driving courses, has fared less well. Studies conducted in the United States, Norway and Finland suggest that this type of advanced skill training actually has a detrimental effect, especially for young males, i.e. it is associated with an increase rather than an decrease in crash involvement, perhaps as a result of overconfidence. The effect of such courses on females is mixed: two studies found no effect and one study found a negative effect on young females that was similar to that of males.


The review of scientific evaluations performed to date provides little support for the claim that driver instruction is an effective safety countermeasure. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence fails to show that formally trained students have a lower frequency of crashes than those who do not receive such training. Even worse, a few studies have shown a safety disbenefit of driver education/training. The harsh reality is that driver education/training programs have been evaluated and have not reduced crash risk of young drivers and, therefore, the safety value of such programs remains unproven. There is some evidence that at least some driver education programs can successfully teach driving skills and impart knowledge, but skills and knowledge acquired in training do not necessarily produce driving behavior that leads to reduced crash involvement.

The role of education and training

Given the rather disappointing results of the evaluations conducted to date on the effectiveness of driver education/training. tow issues remain salient. The first concerns the potential role that education/training might be able to play as a traffic safety countermeasure if modified in some way. The second related issue involves the specific role that education/training can play in a graduated licensing system.

Can driver education/training reduce the crash risk of young drivers?

Research has shown that current driver education/training programs have been unable to affect the crash risk of young drivers and, therefore, the safety value of such programs remains unproven. A critical issue is whether such programs have the potential to produce bottom line safety benefits. The answer to this question is speculative but some insights can be gained through a consideration of why driver instruction has not been effective and what current developments might help overcome these deficiencies.

Among the possible reasons why driver education has not been effective are: 1) the skills and capacities that have been shown to reduce the risk of collision are either not taught or are given superficial treatment in most driver education courses; 2) adequate attention has not been paid to the importance of motivation in determining whether young drives will apply the skills they have learned; 3) the overconfidence that arises from skill acquisition, particularly advanced skills, is not addressed; 4) lifestyle factors related to risky driving and the developmental processes are not addressed.; and 5) program curricula tend to treat young drivers as a homogeneous group rather than tailoring program content to meet the needs (deficiencies) of the student.

In each of these areas, there are opportunities for improvement and a considerable amount of contemporary activity is directed at such improvements. However, before any of these changes are implemented on a permanent basis, it is essential that these new directions be evaluated to determine if they do, in fact, have a positive effect on crashes.

Although these recent initiatives may hold some promise as stand-alone changes to driver instruction, major improvements will likely require rethinking the way driver education and training are conceptualized. Such a re-conceptualization of driver education/training has also generated considerable attention recently and warrants monitoring.

Should driver education/training be linked with graduated licensing?

Intimately related to the issue of the effectiveness of driver education/training is the issue of how it can or should articulate with the new graduated licensing systems that are developing rapidly across North America. Graduated licensing attempts to control the risks encountered by young drivers through a series of restrictions that minimize exposure to more dangerous traffic conditions at the outset. As experience is gained, the restrictions are lifted.

A number of graduated licensing systems currently in place have established a prominent and significant role for driver education/training. At issue is whether this practice would be recommended for others who are planning a graduated licensing system.

The logical position is that there can be no safety benefit from the integration of driver education with graduated licensing, given that the preponderance of scientific evidence shows that driver education does not reduce young driver crashes. Moreover, even though recent improvements to driver education/training may hold promise, it could be argued that the safety impact to these improvements need to be demonstrated before new and/or modified programs become part of a graduated licensing system. This position maintains that there is currently no role for driver education in a graduated licensing system and there will be none until such time as a safety benefit is clearly identified.

This report does not adopt such a rigid, unilateral position for two reasons. First, such a position fails to acknowledge the practical reality that driver education/training is already an integral part of several existing graduated licensing systems; it is also an integral part of many regular licensing systems in the U.S. and this relationship is likely to be retained when graduated licensing is implemented. Second, it fails to acknowledge potential benefits that might accrue from the linkage of formal instruction with graduated licensing.

Notwithstanding these caveats, given the nature of the existing scientific evidence, at this time we would not recommend that jurisdictions introduce driver training/education into their graduated licensing systems if there is no precedent for doing so. If the jurisdiction has no special requirements in its licensing system for driver education/training we see no compelling reason for adding it to its graduated licensing system.

On the other hand, there are jurisdictions that have a well-established precedent linking formal instruction with their licensing system. In this case it is very likely that this precedent will be extended to their graduated licensing system. If this occurs, we do not recommend that the current driver education/training be merged with the graduated licensing system without due consideration of factors that might serve to strengthen that relationship.

How can the relationship between driver education/training and graduated licensing be strengthened?

For jurisdictions that jurisdictions that intend to merge driver education with their graduated licensing system, we recommend that consideration be given to several potential areas for improvement. However, until these potential improvements have been tested and shown to add to the safety benefits of graduated licensing-i.e. reducing the crash involvement of young drivers-wide-scale implementation should be discouraged. The move toward graduated licensing may provide the mechanism and rationale for examining not only what is taught in driver education/training but how it is taught.

Motivating young drivers to use their safety skills

It has been suggested in the literature that young drivers, for various reasons, choose not to apply or use driving skills acquired through driver education and training. from this perspective, motivating them to do so is a key to safe driving. Herein lies a potential symbiotic link between education/training and graduated licensing.

Driver education/training might be able to provide a structure for the orderly and efficient acquisition of critical safely driving skills during the graduated licensing phase. for its part, graduated licensing might be able to provide the motivational framework for encouraging the use of the safe driving skills that tare acquired, because it can demand a collision- and violation-free driving record before the novice can exit from its limitations. Indeed, several jurisdictions have already introduced such incentive-based approaches.

Such an incentive-based approach can, however, be weakened by allowing age to be the criterion for graduation to a full license. if a full license is automatically issues on turning 18, there may be little incentive to use the knowledge and skills acquired in training to drive safely.

The motivational potential can also be reduced considerably if few and/or weak restrictions are applied in the graduated licensing system. This is so because it is the desire to remove these restrictions that serves as the incentive to obtain a full unrestricted license. If novices do not find the restrictions especially onerous or demanding, the motivation to achieve a full unrestricted license is undermined.

The motivational properties of the system might also be strengthened by including additional hurdles, such as more frequent and demanding tests. Novices should be motivated to acquire and practice safety skills required to prepare for the test(s). Test failures should demonstrate their skill limitations and the importance of learning the skills needed to pass. It may also be advisable to introduce the test earlier in the process. The reason is that once the novice passes the exit test and obtains a full unrestricted license there may be no further incentive to actually use the knowledge and skills acquired in training. This problem could be resolved by requiring the advanced test in an earlier stage of licensing so that not all restrictions have been removed. Alternatively, once the novice has passed the advanced test and obtained a full lice se, they could be placed on probation for a reasonable length of time, i.e., even though they have full driving privileges, any crash/violations would result in being placed back in the graduated licensing system.

Further consideration also need to be given to alternative incentive/motivational approaches. The success of an incentive-based approach ultimately depends on the extent to which novices appreciate the value of what can be learned in driver education/training and whether they perceive the reward-e.g. a full license-as desirable enough to warrant routinely driving safely. indeed, driving safely and thereby achieving a full license needs to be valued as highly as other sought-after goals, such as winning an athletic competition, graduating form high school, obtaining employment, and gaining peer approval. This is a major challenge that needs to be addressed by licensing authorities and driver educators to ensure that an integrated system has the potential to work effectively.

Driver education and graduated licensing should be multiphased

By definition, graduated licensing is multiphased-typically it involves a two- or three-stage licensing process that becomes progressively less restrictive as the novice moves towards full licensure. Despite this prominent feature of graduated licensing, most systems that include driver education/training do so only as part of the learner's stage. As a consequence, driver education/training does not fit well with the multiphased graduated licensing system. To rectify this situation, NHTSA has recommended a two-stage driver education program: a basic driver education course in the learner stage of graduated licensing. and a more advanced safety oriented course in the intermediate stage. A comparable system is currently being implemented in Michigan.

Such an approach is based on the premise that beginning drivers are not prepared to benefit fully form safety instruction in driver education. For some students, learning to drive and maintaining basic control of the vehicle are so demanding that safe driving concepts cannot be applied. Thus, it may be advisable to introduce more safety-oriented driver training following initial licensing and after some driving experience has been gained.

Such a multiphased approach also provides an opportunity to harmonize the delivery of specific driver training/education lessons with the graduated licensing requirements. for example, if a night curfew is in effect throughout the graduated licensing system, there might be some benefit to providing supervised in-vehicle lessons on night driving prior to the beginner graduating to full unrestricted driving privileges. In this way, training can supplement but not replace the protective benefits of the graduated licensing system.

Multistaged driver education also provides an opportunity for combining formal and informal instruction. an important safety feature of graduated licensing in the learner phase is an extended period of supervised driving. This provision allows the learner to gain driving experience under the supervision of a licensed adult, typically a parent of a slightly older licensed peer. Although opinion is divided regarding the extent to which the supervisor is competent to teach or train the new driver, there is consensus that the presence of the older licensed driver minimizes the likelihood that the novice will engage in deliberate or intentional risk taking behaviors. And indeed, the limited research that has been conducted suggests that supervised learners seldom crash.

Formal driver education/training could be structured to complement this extended period of adult supervision. in this regard, a few jurisdictions-e.g. France, Belgium-have already developed educational/training approaches in which both lay persons and professionals participate in the training of novices. Moreover, efforts have been made to provide supervisors with support materials that will facilitate their serving in this role, e.g. NHTSA is developing a parent training module.

The content and delivery of driver training/education should be reviewed

If driver education/training is to be integrated with graduated licensing, the proposed program should be carefully scrutinized to determine if it addresses certain key areas:

Designing a program that effectively addresses critical skills may be less challenging that designing one that effectively addresses lifestyle and related psychosocial factors. The limited success that has been achieved in modifying other health risk behaviors underscores this fact. Moreover, the benefits of the potential improvements described above have not been established, so it cannot be assumed that just because a program addresses these factors it will be effective. Nonetheless, effectiveness can only be determined if they are encouraged and implemented on an experimental basis.

A time discount should not be offered for driver education/training

One prominent feature of several of the graduated licensing systems that have been introduced is the provision for a trade-off between the length of time the new driver is governed by the restrictions and completion of driver education/training. Several jurisdictions-e.g. Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Zealand-allow the restricted driving periods to be shortened if driver education courses are completed.

This practice deserves careful consideration because it assumes that driver education/training provides safety benefits at least equivalent to those arising from the driving experiences gained under conditions of low risk (i.e. under restrictions imposed by the system). This premise, however, is not readily supported by the empirical evidence. Moreover, safety disbenefits could result from this practice because it allows earlier access to full, unrestricted driving privileges.

Consequently, if driver education/training is embedded in a graduated licensing system, we do not recommend that the length of time in the system be reduced for successful completion of the courses of instruction.

---This is the end of the Summary of the report. The full report, in two parts, is available on

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