Does driver’s ed work? Who should pay?

| July 7, 2015

highwayby Mike Barrett, Asheville Citizen-Times, July 6, 2015.

Teenagers are caught up in a legislative dispute over who should provide driver’s education classes, who should pay for them and whether the classes are worth the trouble in the first place.

North Carolina students who find themselves bored in their driver’s education class have company — some state legislators are tired of the classes, too.

The state Senate proposes doing away with the requirement that those ages 16 and 17 pass driver’s education to get a license. The House disagrees.

In the meantime, thousands of teenagers across the state are caught up in a legislative dispute over who should provide driver’s education classes, who should pay for them and whether the classes are worth the trouble in the first place.

Because the House and Senate did not agree on answers to those questions before the July start of the state fiscal year, more than a third of school systems in the state, including Buncombe County and Asheville City, suspended driver’s ed instruction last week. Classes usually continue throughout the summer.

Many school systems are wary of continuing classes until they know whether the state will continue paying for them — something legislative budget writers have yet to decide.

“We’re very nervous that we will be given another unfunded mandate” in the form of a requirement that schools provide driver’s ed but no provision in the state budget to pay for them,” said Bill Nolte, associate superintendent for Haywood County Schools.

Legislators “are going to say, ‘take it from other funds,’ but we don’t have other funds,” Nolte said. “We’ve lost over $5 million (in state funding) since January of 2009. We’ve lost over 130 employees.”

The impasse has several sources: efforts by both legislative chambers to end use of gas tax proceeds and other highway-related revenue sources for any programs not part of the state Department of Transportation; skepticism in the Senate over how much students learn in the classes; and a push in that chamber to cut personal and corporate income tax rates, steps that would limit how much money is available to fund programs like driver’s ed.

The Senate’s budget plan calls for a study of shifting driver’s ed instruction to community colleges in the 2016-17 fiscal year and provides no state funding for schools to offer the course during the current fiscal year. A $65 cap on the fee they can charge each student would be lifted to whatever schools’ actual cost is, estimated to be $300 or more.

The Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, providing that students could get a license without taking driver’s ed if they complete 85 hours of driving with a parent or guardian — up from the current requirement of 60 hours — and score at least 85 on a written test. That’s 5 percentage points higher than the current standard of 80. Hise said he pushed the change so students who couldn’t afford a higher fee could still get a license.

The House budget plan essentially keeps things as they are. It would allow school systems to continue charging $65 for driver’s ed and fund the rest of the cost with $26.4 million from late charges for vehicle registrations.

A House-Senate conference committee will eventually work out a compromise version of the budget that will settle the issue for at least the current fiscal year, but that won’t happen until later this summer. Legislators are taking this week off and left Raleigh on Thursday without appointing conference committee members.

Does it work?

Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican who co-chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, offered a simple explanation for his chamber’s skepticism of driver’s ed in floor debate over the Senate budget last month.

“The program that’s in place now has about a 40 percent success rate, and for us that was an alarming statistic,” he said.

A 2014 report by legislative staffers found that from 2007-08 to 2011-12, more than 40 percent of driver’s ed students failed the written test the state Division of Motor Vehicles administers before students can get a learner’s permit. The failure rate dropped to 33 percent in 2012-13. That was the first year school systems could charge students, and it saw the number of driver’s ed students drop by about a third to 126,217.

Evidence is mixed on the question of whether graduates of driver’s ed courses nationally pass an even more important real-world test: driving safely.

Emphasis on driver’s ed has fallen in the United States after a 1983 study suggested that taking a course did not significantly reduce students’ likelihood of being in a crash.

Two studies from this decade show modestly lower crash rates for students who have taken driver’s ed courses. Lawrence Lonero, an expert in the field and the co-author of one of the recent studies, says that while the 1983 study was “seriously flawed,” it is still not clear that taking driver’s ed offers a major benefit.

Schools should either make the courses more rigorous and use techniques shown to make students better drivers or just get out of the business of driving instruction altogether, says Lonero, a private consultant on driver behavior based in Coburg, Ontario. Many courses “are basically terrible,” he said in an interview last week.

“I have advocated a more intensive form of driver’s ed which would actually make people better drivers,” he said. “If you aren’t going to make the course better, then why not let it go would be my view.”

Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers, claiming the lives of 2,439 American teens in 2012 according to one tally. Even though that was a little less than half the number recorded in 2002, Lonero calls crashes involving teens “still a tremendous public health problem.”

But, he says declining fatality rates caused by safer cars and graduated licensing systems that restrict teen driving have provided politicians cover to not take action to address driver’s ed.

“Somehow the situation we have is good enough” in officials’ minds, he said. “We know we can train people to do stuff better, and we know we can influence people’s behavior to behave in a safe manner, but we don’t in this particular field.”

The 2014 report by legislative staffers said the state Department of Public Instruction should do a better job of supervising and evaluating driver’s ed programs offered in school systems around the state. It did not recommend doing away with driver’s ed.

Brown voiced a similar complaint during Senate floor debate, saying that among driver’s ed courses around the state, there was “just no consistency at all” in how they are taught, which prompted budget writers to explore shifting responsibility to community colleges.

The DPI official in charge of driver’s ed could not be reached for comment last week.

Fix it or junk it?

Tiffany Wright, communications manager at automobile club AAA Carolinas, says there are problems with driver’s ed programs around the state, but she said they do make students better drivers.

“The answer’s not to eliminate it. How is that going to solve anything?” she said. “We want to see it funded. We also want to see lawmakers make the current driver’s ed courses better. … There do need to be improvements.”

Wright is concerned that changes to put the cost of driver’s ed on students and their families would unduly burden those of limited means.

“You want driver’s ed to be affordable. You don’t want it to be something that only the wealthy can afford,” she said.

Some senators raised the same concern during floor debate on the state budget, but an amendment offered to delay a corporate tax cut in the budget bill to provide driver’s ed funding was voted down.

Lee Roy Ledford, head of a company that offer driver’s ed courses via contracts with nine Western North Carolina school systems including Asheville and Buncombe County, said part of the problem with passing rates of driver’s ed students is, “The DMV test is so antiquated that it’s asking questions that are not germane to what we’re teaching in the classroom.”

He said there is no substitute for students driving with an instructor next to them who has his or her own brake they can use to prevent accidents.

“The driving gives you practical experience, in our case, a 20-year experienced instructor who has the brake, who has the patience, who is going to be able to not get excited, scream, holler and yell,” said Ledford, whose Mountain Professionals Inc. is based in Bakersville.

Most parents appreciate having someone else help their children learn what to do behind the wheel, he said, and parents are not necessarily the best teachers anyway.

He asked, “Would you feel comfortable going through all the nuances of a three-point road turn? Would you feel comfortable teaching your child how to go across all those three or four lanes on Smoky Park Bridge?” the former name for Bowen Bridge just west of downtown Asheville.

Lonero said students have low accident rates when supervised by any adult driver, parents included. But he said he can see some benefit to having someone other than a parent sitting beside a beginning driver, if only to parents’ mental health.

“It’s a valuable service. There’s no question about that. I sure wouldn’t want to do it,” he said.

Other parts of driver’s ed courses are not as worthwhile, and simply expanding conventional coursework won’t fix problems with the programs, Lonero said.

“More time for kids sitting in a classroom, listening to lectures and exhorted to be more careful, that stuff just doesn’t work,” he said.

http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/07/05/legislators-ask-drivers-ed-work-pay/29740563/

Category: Education, SPIN Blog

Comments (1)

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  1. Richard L Bunce says:

    All right, actual data that shows once again traditional government schools failure to perform a (wrongly) assigned task. The Senate bill sounds like a good start. Perhaps add a means tested refundable tax credit so low income households can arrange for competent private driving instruction.