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States Are Putting the Brakes on Driver’s Ed

Over the last decade, many have stopped funding it. Are the roads more dangerous?

Remember driver’s ed? It might be the one class teenagers are excited about, because it gets them one step closer to mobility and freedom.

From a public policy point of view, however, driver’s education is meant to convert adolescents into safer, more capable drivers. But in a number of states, lawmakers have grown skeptical that it’s effectively serving this function.

The latest battleground is North Carolina, where the state Senate sought to zero out funding for the program this year. Driving is not a skill you can learn in a classroom, complained state Sen. Dan Soucek, who charged that the Department of Public Instruction “has completely failed” when it comes to providing standardized and worthwhile courses.

It was a big turnabout for the state, which until a few years ago was one of the last to provide driver’s ed at no cost to students. (There’s now a $65 fee.) But other states over the past decade have also given up on driver’s ed. Safety advocates say this only increases risk. “The fact is that in areas where driver education has died, more teens have died,” says James Aubrey Solomon of the National Safety Council.

There’s no question that beginning drivers can be a menace to society. According to a recent study from the AAA Foundation, 371,645 people were injured and 2,927 were killed in 2013 in crashes that involved teen drivers -- and two-thirds of the victims were individuals other than the teen driver. “Other states that have deleted their programs are seeing their collision and death rates climb,” says Connie Sessoms, who runs the driver’s ed program in Charlotte, “and now they’re scrambling to get their programs back in place.”

Still, not everyone agrees that driver’s ed is a panacea. It may be “counterintuitive,” says Anne McCartt, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but driver’s ed programs don’t do much to cut down on risk. They do a good job familiarizing kids with the rules of the road, but they’re not so great at achieving the underlying goal: instructing kids on how to get from Point A to Point B without presenting a danger to themselves or others. “In terms of keeping them safer,” she says, “studies have not found that these programs reduce crashes.”

When North Carolina finished its overdue budget in September, funding was restored for two years. Legislators called for a study to look for ways to lower costs and possibly privatize some instruction.

Advocates of driver’s ed say that opposition from state senators may have less to do with their doubts about the efficacy of driver’s ed than its cost. “This seems to be much more of a squabble over finances than one of either education or safety,” says Rob Foss of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. “To my knowledge, nobody at our center has been consulted on anything having to do with driver’s ed, or young drivers more generally.” 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Connie Sessoms as Connie Sessums.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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