Eliminating driver’s ed classes would raise risks for all on the road

Defunding driver’s education could place a high burden on N.C. families and leave roads less safe.
Defunding driver’s education could place a high burden on N.C. families and leave roads less safe. 2011 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

There are few easier cases to make in public policy than the need for driver’s education. The notion of putting a teenager behind the wheel of a couple of tons of horsepower and steel gives all parents pause, which is why most support the idea of their children getting schooled in driving in classrooms and behind the wheel by people who are trained to do so.

Driver’s education saves lives and helps prevent accidents. Students learn important things about defensive driving – watching intersections even on a green light, anticipating in wooded areas the dangers of deer – that might not be obvious or something they’d run into in day-to-day driving. In that driver’s education car, they also learn from each other, and teachers often have passenger brakes that many have used to prevent accidents.

Why the state Senate Republicans want to eliminate the driver’s education requirement for the classes now taken annually by 120,000 young people is a peculiar mystery. Instead, senators with no expertise whatsoever on the effects of this proposal (save for a shallow statistical report that proves little but is cited by proponents as if it were the Magna Carta) say kids can pass the written driver’s test and spend more time driving with their parents. Or they can pay $300 or $400 for a course through community colleges. That price may eliminate the chance for classes for lower-income kids, who were already struggling to pay the fee assessed for classes, which is a maximum of $65.

The notion that parents will take over in-car training is something, as News & Observer Road Worrier Bruce Siceloff discovered, that they don’t like. Siceloff noted the comment of one mother who was not insulted by the notion that parents might not be the best driving teachers: “Anyone who has raised teenagers knows that when it comes to being taught by parents, it doesn’t always work out.” Amen.

Consider the wisdom of Rob Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. He’s the guy who helped develop the graduated license system that insisted new drivers get more experience before they “graduated” to being able to drive by themselves or with passengers at all hours.

His take on this idea from the Senate is blunt: “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. It’s hard to know what effect this might have on crash rates.”

Republican senators have done some strange things indeed during their time in power, seeming at times to act without input from those who might disagree with them or even without seeking expertise, particularly if that expertise might contradict their actions, as it does in this case. But this is particularly risky, in a literal sense. Driver’s education is a common-sense requirement that helps not just students and their families but all the drivers who share the road with them and their passengers. Driving is a skill that takes time to develop, and a good base of fundamentals is imperative.

“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.

In going after driver’s education, Republicans might have finally hit a nerve that will get the attention of even their most conservative constituents. This is a safety issue, pure and simple, and the GOP senators have ignored credible experts and good sense and charged on with foolish and, yes, dangerous legislation.

Perhaps, at last, their failure to engage the public in the legislative process will get the attention of previously loyal supporters. That dad who thought the Republicans’ ideological agenda was just fine might have second thoughts about their wisdom when he saddles up next to his 16-year-old son in the family car without the brakes and experience of a driver’s ed teacher.