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Road Worrier: Parents, teachers say NC still needs driver’s ed

Student driver Courtney Barron, a rising sophomore at Cary High School, adjust the mirror in one of the Jordan Driving School automobiles as she takes the wheel for some driving time at Middle Creek High School in Cary, N.C. on Monday June 22, 2015.
Student driver Courtney Barron, a rising sophomore at Cary High School, adjust the mirror in one of the Jordan Driving School automobiles as she takes the wheel for some driving time at Middle Creek High School in Cary, N.C. on Monday June 22, 2015. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Congratulations, 15-year-old boys and girls: If you can pass the DMV’s written test about the rules of the road, the state Senate is ready to hand you the car keys.

Forget about 30 hours of classroom instruction, the Senate says. Don’t worry about six hours of behind-the-wheel training. To quote the rock-solid wisdom of Pink Floyd: We don’t need no education.

Senate Republicans added a provision to the state budget last week that would eliminate driver’s education classes – now taken by 120,000 North Carolina teens each year – as a requirement for a Division of Motor Vehicles learner’s permit.

To compensate, senators favor a slightly higher passing score on that written test. Then, before the kid could move up from learner’s permit to a full license, more adult supervision would be required – 85 hours with Mom or Dad riding in the front seat, instead of the current 60 hours.

This won’t become law unless the House and the governor agree.

As it turns out, the Road Worrier’s readers emphatically do not agree.

“Driving is a lifelong skill and should be learned the correct way,” said Elissa Yount of Henderson, who still remembers safe-driving tips from her driver’s ed class 52 years ago. “To think that parents who may have road rage will be responsible for teaching their children to drive is so frightening.”

Connor Hughes remembers what he learned in driver’s ed last year: What to do when a deer jumps out at you. How to make a three-point turn or watch out for motorcycles.

“If parents were the only ones to have an influence on a teenager’s driving ability, their bad habits would be passed down like a family recipe,” said Connor, 16, of Apex, who has a learner’s permit and hopes to get his license in December. “There are crazy drivers out there. You don’t want them to teach kids, by themselves, how to drive.”

Dozens of parents, grandparents and educators said by phone and email they are alarmed by the prospect of turning untrained kids loose on North Carolina streets and highways – and relying on parents to tell them what they need to know.

Driver’s ed teachers have several advantages over parents. They’ve been trained. They aren’t encumbered by parent-child emotional baggage.

Crash course

They can avert disaster in their student cars, specially equipped with passenger-side brakes. And they do.

“The general public has no clue how often we keep students out of wrecks during their training,” said Sampson County driver’s ed teacher Shawn Williams.

“If I didn’t have a brake, my left hand to grab the wheel, patience, experience and that big yellow sign that reads ‘STUDENT DRIVER,’ I wouldn’t be here today,” said Craig Uzzell, who has been teaching Wayne County teens for 23 years. “Students with no experience will pull out in traffic without looking, slam on brakes not (knowing) what is behind them, not stopping for stop signs.”

Billy George of Emerald Isle, a retired state trooper, says we need more driver’s ed, not less.

Parents welcome the help

Are parents offended by these aspersions? Oh, no.

Ann Catalano of Raleigh says she could never match her 17-year-old daughter’s driver’s ed training.

“Anyone who has raised teenagers knows that when it comes to being taught by parents, it doesn’t always work out,” Catalano said. “They are much more likely to take correction from a qualified instructor.”

Tammy Heuts of Zebulon is impressed by the street smarts her daughter picked up in class, too.

Driver’s education classes were free until a few years ago. Then the legislature began cutting back state funding, and schools were authorized to start charging fees to cover the cost. The maximum fee will climb to $65 this fall and higher in future years, because the last state money for driver education ends with the current budget year.

Now that the legislature has made driver’s ed expensive, legislators say, it’s not fair to make it mandatory.

“We don’t want to only make driver’s licenses available for high-income individuals,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican who sponsored the budget amendment to end the driver’s ed requirement.

Managing the cost

A few dozen rural county school systems consider the training so important that they absorbed the extra cost in recent years as state funds were cut back, and they still offer the classes for free. But the new Senate budget would make driver’s ed an optional offering at community colleges, where the expected fees would range between $300 and $400.

To bolster their hard-nosed decision, Senate Republicans point to a 2014 report on driver’s ed by the legislature’s Program Evaluation Division. The 46-page document is taken up mostly with a bureaucratic critique of the state Department of Public Instruction.

Is driver’s ed effective? The legislative report says that teens’ performance on the DMV written test improved or stayed the same every year for six years in a row – with a failure rate that declined from 59 percent in 2008 to 33 percent in 2013. Rather than accentuate this positive trend, the report summarizes it as a six-year average failure rate of 46 percent.

What do these numbers signify? Teachers pointed out that kids often take the DMV test several months after they finish driver’s ed class.

The Program Evaluation Division sometimes is known more for focusing on what statistics it can find than for figuring out whether the numbers measure what matters.

Its attack on DMV safety inspections several years ago gave a misleading emphasis to the low numbers of cars that actually fail the test – because those were the only statistics available. Most of the bald tires and burned-out taillights uncovered in safety inspections across the state are never reported to DMV – they are simply repaired, so the cars can pass the test.

Effect hard to know

As director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, Rob Foss has helped shape North Carolina’s graduated licensing program, which is credited with reducing deaths and crashes involving young drivers. Graduated licensing moves teens from learner’s permit to full license slowly, starting with heavy supervision and restrictions that are relaxed gradually over two years.

He worries about the proposal to eliminate the driver’s ed requirement.

“The stark reality is that this is a proposal to experiment with the safety of more than 120,000 young drivers a year, their passengers, and – importantly – those they share the roads with (i.e., all of us),” Foss said. “It’s hard to know what effect this might have on crash rates.”

Of the 85 readers who offered comment, two said they would be glad to see the end of driver’s ed in North Carolina. Critics of the Senate proposal included Democrats and Republicans.

“I’m a conservative,” Ron Woodard of Cary said. “I think there aren’t many things that government should be doing, but driver’s ed is one of them.”

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