Tom Langdon, the personnel director of Jordan Driving School, has long said if the General Assembly stops funding driver’s education, it could potentially be detrimental to drivers everywhere.
Many Wake County school board members said the same at last week’s school board meeting.
After the fiscal year ends in June, the General Assembly plans to phase out the $26 million it now provides for driver’s education. But the state is still requiring school systems to offer the program.
State law requires school districts to offer driver’s education to every student in public, private and home-schools in their districts who wants the program.
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Driver’s education used to be free for families. But now districts are allowed to charge a fee to help offset cuts in state funding since 2011.
After July 1, no state funding is set aside. Districts will be allowed to charge as much as $65 per student, $10 more than the current amount. But school officials say that $10 increase won’t offset the $191 per student that the state provides.
If the district were to stop funding driver’s education, those wanting to take the course separately could pay as much as $400, Langdon said.
“And I’m sure a lot of parents won’t be able to afford that,” he said.
In 2012, when the General Assembly first decided to decrease funding, Langdon said participation dropped greatly. Schools could charge $45 to take the course. He said many parents were surprised and found it difficult to pay. It has since picked up, he said, but he doesn’t expect it to get any better when the General Assembly decides to stop funding it all together.
“We feel like it not only affects those kids but it affects everybody using the highway system,” he said. “We wonder what this is going to do as far as traffic fatalities and life-changing injuries. That’s something I don’t think we can afford to take a chance on.”
Joe Walls, an English teacher, and the lead Driver’s Education instructor at Garner Magnet High, agreed. He said a full driver’s education course will enroll a little more than 40 students. He said the first time costs went from free to $45 and to $55 the next year, he saw a 25 percent drop in participation. He said he remains concerned because he’s not sure some families will be willing to continually pay the increases.
“The biggest concern I have is we have a high number of free and reduced lunch students – and we see a larger population of families who need assistance. I could foresee our program taking a huge hit,” Walls said.
Walls said it is essential that students take the course so they can be knowledgeable of the potential hazards on the road. Under North Carolina’s graduated licensing program for young drivers, driver education class is mandatory for anyone younger than 18 who applies for a learner’s permit. Students get 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel.
Once they turn 18, teens can get a license without the class by passing Division of Motor Vehicles tests.
“I’ve been to too many funerals for students who have had incidents where they have been victims of car crashes,” Walls said. “There have been too many incidents between here and Johnston County where students have succumb to bad decisions. The earlier we can get to them, the better we can provide for them the opportunity to make better decisions.”
Not so fast
But Robert Foss, the senior research scientist and director for the Center for the Study of Young Drivers, disagreed with the notion that driver’s education reduces accidents. He said there is no research that shows driver’s education reduces car crashes. He pointed to other states that have done the same.
People learn to drive by driving, Foss said. He said he doesn’t believe driver’s education is meaningless but he said districts need to expand it in some way.
“What really is needed is to have beginning drivers, whether they’re 16 or 40, actually driving a car on real roads with an instructor in a car that can help them learn and point out situations that are dangerous,” he said. “Just telling people this stuff, that’s all nice but it has never had much effect on human behavior. It’s not something we should avoid doing, but it’s not enough.”
Foss, like Walls and Langdon, disagrees with taking away funding for driver’s education and worries about the potential consequences.
“There are a lot of possible unintended side effects that we don’t even know what they might be, but they probably won’t be good,” he said.