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State leadership to improve driver’s ed in NC? Not likely

Student reacts to Wake suspending driver education

Koy Holt, 14, of Wendell, talks about how the suspension of Wake County's driver education program impacts teens like himself.
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Koy Holt, 14, of Wendell, talks about how the suspension of Wake County's driver education program impacts teens like himself.

North Carolina actually had a driver’s education program back in May, when five national experts gathered in Raleigh to critique it.

Now that they have delivered their assessment, who is here to receive it?

A team convened by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that there is no consistency across North Carolina in overseeing driver’s ed teachers and making sure their classes really help young drivers. Its report called for state leadership to evaluate students, engage their parents and make our roads safer.

But when it comes to driver’s education, state leadership is not a priority among state leaders.

State funding for driver’s ed classes expired at the end of June. The Department of Public Instruction laid off its driver’s ed consultant in July. Many school boards across the state suspended the classes in August – because our legislature couldn’t decide whether driver’s ed is worth the bother for taxpayers, or for teen drivers themselves.

There are vague hopes that the legislature will adopt a budget by the end of September and determine the fate of driver’s ed.

The Senate wants to end state funding and let 15-year-olds start driving without taking driver’s ed first. The House wants to continue subsidizing the classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction that 120,000 teens received at North Carolina high schools last year.

If an eventual budget compromise restores funding at last year’s levels, the state will again cover enough of the cost so that students can take the class for a $65 fee. That will be enough to keep driver’s ed alive, but not to make it better.

To make it better, the NHTSA team of driver’s education and traffic safety veterans said North Carolina should:

▪  Make one agency responsible for overseeing driver’s ed statewide, with a standard curriculum and end-of-course assessments. Now, DPI and the state Division of Motor Vehicles both have roles but little authority over local school programs.

▪  Set standards for certifying and training driver’s ed teachers.

▪  Engage the parents. Bring them in before driver’s ed class starts and again, afterward, in a one-on-one briefing with the student’s behind-the-wheel driving instructor.

▪  Analyze the DMV written and skills tests to make sure they accurately evaluate the novice driver’s ability to drive safely.

The NHTSA team echoed some of the findings in a 2014 report by the legislature’s Program Evaluation Division. Senate critics cited part of that report – which said that driver’s ed graduates perform poorly on the DMV license test – as a justification for canceling the driver’s ed requirement.

But Rob Foss, who heads the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, blames legislative neglect.

The General Assembly has balked at setting state standards and giving DPI statewide responsibility. It began reducing driver’s ed funds a few years ago.

“The legislature has not done their job on this for decades,” Foss said. “So it’s a little unfair of them to be taking potshots and criticizing now. The issue is that there has been no statewide oversight of driver ed for a very long time.”

Other states and countries have tried without success, he said, to develop driver tests that can be proven to reduce crashes.

Foss is a national leader in studying the role of parents. He says there’s not much to be gained by meeting with parents before their kids start the class.

Parents need to know what their kids don’t yet know how to do, and what they need to practice on, when they come out of driver education.

Rob Foss, UNC Center for the Study of Young Drivers

But after the teen completes classroom and behind-the-wheel training, that’s the time for parents and teachers to meet, Foss said.

“Many driver education instructors do this on their own, but all of them should,” Foss said. “It’s an individualized session with the instructor who knows a lot about driving – and knows a lot about this kid’s performance.”

Maybe the student is a genius at parallel parking and checking the rear-view mirror, but sometimes she follows other cars too closely or forgets to use her turn signal.

“Parents need to know what their kids don’t yet know how to do, and what they need to practice on, when they come out of driver education,” Foss said.

He calls this little recommendation – an individual debriefing for parents, at the end of driver’s ed class – the best idea on the NHTSA list of recommendations. It’s easy to do, and it will help parents do a better job supervising their teen drivers.

But it’s not clear that anybody in North Carolina will do anything with these ideas for improving driver’s ed. After DPI’s driver’s ed coordinator was laid off in July, an official in Washington mailed the NHTSA assessment to Ben Matthews, a DPI deputy chief financial officer, with a cover letter dated Aug. 8.

Two days later, in an interview with News & Observer reporter T. Keung Hui, Matthews said: “At this point we don’t have a state driver education program.”

He said no one at DPI was available to comment on the driver’s ed report.

Teen crash deaths decline

North Carolina was one of the first states to institute graduated licensing, a program credited with reducing crashes and deaths involving young drivers. After a mandatory driver’s education class, teens begin driving with front-seat parental supervision and restrictions that are relaxed gradually over 18 months.

Crashes involving teen drivers (ages 15-19)

Year

Crashes

Deaths

2008

48,818

152

2009

47,820

125

2010

42,890

102

2011

40,670

109

2012

40,717

76

2013

41,373

63

Source: North Carolina 2013 Traffic Crash Facts

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