Barry Saunders

Drop driver’s ed funding? Someone put the brakes on that idea

There is, Roy “Sonny” Clayton told us gleefully, an 18-wheeler out there with our name on its front fender.

Say what?

Those were Clayton’s first words to the group of pimply-faced, testosterone-laden teens seated before him on our first day of driver’s education at Richmond Senior High School.

It was also my last day seated before him.

Clayton was the driver’s ed instructor, and his ghoulish goal was to frighten his youthful charges into respecting the awesome power we were about to assume by becoming drivers. It worked on me: I never went back after that day and thus didn’t learn to drive until I was 25.

Of course, in addition to fear, part of the reason for that was that I thought up until 25 that I’d be a rich professional basketball player who could hire somebody to drive me. Who needs a driver’s license when you can just say “Snodgrass” – that was going to be my chauffeur’s name – “to the Piggly Wiggly, old bean”?

Clayton was making the point that death awaited any driver who hit the brakes with one foot while keeping the other foot on the gas pedal. His frightful message obviously got through, because I remember it every time I crank up ol’ Bessie.

Disturbing news

Death could await a lot more North Carolina teenagers if the legislature doesn’t provide money to ensure that every teen who wants it has access to driver’s education courses. An N&O story this week gave the disturbing news that one-third of the state’s school systems are suspending driver’s ed courses until they find out if the General Assembly is going to help fund them.

Don’t y’all hold your breath. The House budget would continue funding and require students or parents to pay as much as a $65 fee; the Senate’s budget eliminates all funding and moves driver’s education to the state’s community colleges, where the cost could run into the hundreds.

Under the Senate’s proposal, kids could conceivably get a learner’s permit without having ever cranked up a car or adjusted a rearview mirror. YIKES!

Legislators will boast that they trimmed the state’s budget, when in reality they are merely passing the cost – the tax, really – on to citizens. Tar Heel residents haven’t seen such fancy maneuvering behind the wheel since Richard Petty retired.

It seems inconceivable that the elected representatives of what once known as “the education state” would even consider turning such a vital part of education over to private companies, just so they can boast of cutting the budget or possibly reward campaign donors.

Weeks before teen idol James Dean died in a car crash, he cut a public service ad telling young drivers to “take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine.”

An enraged citizenry’s message to a nickel-and-diming legislature should be “the nickel and dime you save might cost us our lives.”

‘Flawed data’

Allen Robinson, CEO of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, said he gets enraged when he sees people using “flawed data” to bolster the argument that driver’s education doesn’t make our highways safer. There is copious research, he said, that “absolutely shows that it makes them safer. ... North Carolina has one of the best drivers education programs in the country” and needs to “get on the stick” to ensure the program is funded.

Russ Rader, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, though, said strengthening the state’s graduated licensing law is more important than driver’s ed. “(T)eens who take driver ed are no less likely to get into crashes than teens who (don’t). Crash risk for teens is less about their skills than about their immaturity and propensity to take risks.”

Even if that doubtful proposition is true, do you know what else will lessen their propensity to take risks?

Having a Roy “Sonny” Clayton in the classroom telling them about that 18-wheeler with their name on its fender.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or