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The future of driver education

By: Owen Crabb

Date: Monday, 27. September 2010

Owen Crabb is a senior staff analyst with the Maryland State Department of Education's Division of Instruction. He is a former president of the American Driver And Traffic Safety Education Association and has published numerous articles on the future of driver education.

A look at the past is always a good way to develop a balanced perspective on the future. With this in mind, there are three things I will try to do in this assessment of what the future holds for driver educators.

First, I will provide you with a historical overview of driver education as it has grown to maturity in the United States. In doing so, I may miss some of the "standard bearers" of the past, but believe me, this is not intentional.

Second, I will focus on the changes that driver educators, and the rest of our world, are going through today - a world in which the possibilities for new and exciting kinds of education are unlimited.

Third, I will suggest three building block principles for the future.

How it all started

A search for the origins of formal driver education can focus on a few early simultaneous efforts: In 1928, Amos Neyhart in Pennsylvania; the American Automobile Association (AAA) in Saganaw, Michigan; and the Chicago Motor Club were involved in fledgling driver education programs.

Neyhart wrote his master's thesis on his project and went on to develop and expand a safety program at what was then Pennsylvania State College. At the AAA's national office, Will Scarlett and Burton Marsh picked up on, and expanded, the Chicago Motor Club initiative.

The next major development occurred in 1949 at Jackson's Mill, West Virginia, the birthplace of one of the Civil War's most famous generals, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Here, the First National Conference on Driver Education was an event that had probably as much significance for driver educators as Jackson's famous Battle of Bull Run had for the American Civil War.

Traffic safety professionals from across the nation came together and formalized recommendations for driver education standards, such as the 30 hours classroom and six hours in-car time that became de facto national standards. They still form the basis of many driver education programs across the continent.

In the 1950s, driver education experienced the kind of explosive growth that most new movements go through early in their existence. During this period, when driver education was an optional offering, the insurance industry established driver education insurance premium discount programs. Later, some would say it was a way of identifying individuals who were already predisposed to establishing a good driving record. In other words, individuals who opted to take driver education courses tended to be good students who drove less and were less risky in their driving styles.

Also in the '50s, newly developed university traffic safety centers flooded the high school market with teachers equipped with driver education credentials, and driving simulators came into popular use.

The next year of note is 1956 when the National Commission on Safety Education convened a meeting of the presidents and vice-presidents of all state driver and traffic safety education associations (about 32 at the time). From this meeting, the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA) took form, and it has provided leadership to those in the field ever since.

The next date to remember is 1973, a big year for driver education's private sector. While this sector had been growing all along, it came of age in 1973 when the first meeting of the Driving School Association of the Americas took place in Boston.

During 1977, two significant events took place that affected the driver education movement even to this day. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) launched a major campaign to question the value of driver education. The IIHS asserted that if driver ed were not offered, 80% of eligible 16- and 17-year-old youth would wait until they were 18 or older to get a licence because their parents had asked them to do so. This sentiment prompted headlines across the nation and, to this day, has had a lingering effect on the public's attitude towards driver ed.

The second development in 1977 was the start of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Safe Performance Curriculum project in DeKalb County, near Atlanta. This research project was billed as one of the biggest and best ever. Ultimately, it did not demonstrate driver education as being effective in reducing crash rates of novice drivers.

That brings us to the '90s. How have the seeds of driver education grown? Let's look at three areas: high schools, commercial driving schools, and driver licensing systems.

High schools

Most readers will already know that high school driver ed programs are going through some real tough times. Part of this problem is caused by programs that were built on 1940s standards. But to a greater degree, driver education problems are a symptom of difficulties being experienced in public schooling in general. Remember, schools and programs reflect the community they're in. Take, for example, Ross Perot's observation of the difference between schools when he was a kid and the schools of today:

"The seven major discipline problems when I was in school in the '30s and '40s were talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothing, and - here's one that really used to shake the place up - not putting paper in the wastebasket.

Here are today's major public school problems in order: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. I went through the public schools in the Depression and never heard of one of them."

To these changes add the most severe funding problems in history for many states, and you'll see it's little wonder that high school driver education has hit a rough stretch of road.

Driving schools

As one might expect, the private sector has experienced significant growth in many areas. After all, 27 states in 1991 still required driver education for 16- and 17-year-old drivers. But this doesn't receive much attention in a press that thrives on adversity.

How have driving schools prospered in this current environment? While it's no more fair to stereotype commercial driving schools than it is high schools, nonetheless some generalizations are valid. Without a doubt, some large, well-run driving schools have refined this business and then some.

In fact, if (McDonalds founder) Ray Kroc were alive today, he might be taking notes.

The flip side to this image of the driving school industry shows that it is getting increasingly difficult to maintain quality. In some situations, it is the rule rather than the exception to employ on-road instructors who have no formal teaching or traffic safety preparation at all.

Driver licensing

Any look at driver education should factor in licensing. At a minimum, licensing should not simply generate revenue, which it obviously does; it should provide a medical screening and other assurances that an individual will be a reasonably competent driver, and in many cases that is, to a degree, happening.

As a result of some states taking graduated or provisional licensing to heart, many new drivers are experiencing better driving records. But some sad facts are worthy of note. In Maryland, half of those taking their initial licensing test fail. Is this the result of an unreasonable test or a failure of driver education? The answer to that question can't be analyzed here, but it's something to think about.

There is one additional thought on education that has implications for schooling and licensing. One of the most profound developments emerging from current public school reform movements goes under the label of Outcome-Based Education. Prophets of this approach will tell you to forget course hours and credit counts and focus on outcomes. Driver educators have been warming up to this notion for several years and in some areas, notably motorcycle rider education, have some lessons for others.

Finally, before going on to the topic of change, let's not take our eye off the teen traffic problem. To put this in a health context: for 15- to 25-year-old youth, driving is still the major cause of death, although, regrettably, in some areas AIDS and homicides are now competing strongly in importance.


Let me provide you with a few examples of change in the corporate world to set the scene for considering change in driver education.

I'd like to highlight a few points from a fascinating article entitled "Dinosaurs" (not the Jurassic Park variety) that ran in the May 3, 1993, edition of Fortune magazine. The article compares the market value of selected companies for the years 1972, 1982 and 1992. Two major findings pop out of the analysis:

Before your head starts to swim with all this change stuff, let me add a dash of perspective. Joel Barker, in his wonderful futurist program that includes videos such as Paradigm Pioneers, likes to draw our attention to some of the changes our grandparents went through.

During the 20-year period from 1890 to 1910, these nine changes took shape: radio; the Model-T car for the masses; movies; the first powered flight by the Wright brothers; the discovery of X-rays; the spread of electrical power; the discovery of electrons; the discovery of a cure for malaria; and the establishment by Albert Einstein of the theory of relativity, which ushered in the atomic age.

One more thought to round out this discussion of the way our world is changing in the information age. Recently, the media made a fuss over the departure of John Sculley as Chairman of Apple computer. Sculley was a major figure in the rise of the Apple corporation and he's a good person to follow in keeping track of hi-tech change. In leaving Apple, he made this observation. By the year 2000, he predicts, Apple will simply give away computer hardware and make its money by providing services, software, and customized solutions to individual and business needs. One of Sculley's legacies to Apple has received big coverage in the media recently-a hand-held computer called the Newton.

The implications of these information-age products are dramatic for all of us. Consider for a moment the impact of the "electronic information superhighway" and video-on-demand by telephone. Might we soon have computer-served-and-assessed classroom experiences in a home setting? The possibilities are enormous. We should be planning for them.

Need we say more on the subject of change? The healthy frame of mind is to admit that we are in an era unlike any other. Yes, there have been times with high rates of innovation, but this information age we're in now is different, and the next ten years are going to change all that has gone before. Our challenge is to face up to this fact and participate actively in the reinvention of our world.


Where does all this leave driver educators as the changes crowd in on us? Three principles seem clear:

Driver education and licensing programs have grown up over the years, much like other industrial-age undertakings. Programs are provided on a time basis and are conducted in traditional settings such as schools and classrooms. As the rate of change in our world accelerates, driver education programs that adapt will be the ones that survive. One hopes that we long-time professionals in the field won't be like the frog in the story about the frying pan. Placed in a hot pan, the frog will jump and avoid being badly burned. But if the frog is placed in a cold pan that is slowly heated up, the heat may get to a lethal level before it occurs to it to jump. And then it's too late.

We are in the information age, and over the next few years we will be given the opportunity to reinvent driver education in ways that have not been possible before now. As we initiate these changes, it's likely that many of the structural rules we adhere to now will be broken.

As John Evans of News Electronic Data puts it, the reason parents want their children to play Monopoly is that all the rules are laid out on the lid of the box. The reason kids like to play Nintendo is that there are no rules to Super Mario Brothers or Tetris. It's only the outcome that counts.

Lastly, out of all this chaotic change, there really are some solid givens:

At the risk of giving you a headache as you try to sort out the implications of all these changes, let me leave you with Robert Frost's thoughts about taking the unknown path as expressed in his poem The Road not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back
I shall be telling you this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I wish you well on the journey we're about to share.

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Bill Powers,

Please contact me to discuss Drive Right, 11th edition. 9/27/10
Bill Powers
Braxton County HS

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