Driver Education

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Driver and traffic safety education began as a concept in 1928 as part of a doctoral thesis by Albert W. Whitney. Whitney argued that since so many high school students were learning to drive cars, schools had a responsibility to include driver education and safety instruction in the curriculum. Driver and traffic safety education was developed as a method for persons to gain licensure to use an automobile on public roadways. Prior to this period, state licensure to operate an automobile was not required in all states and localities. As automobiles became less costly and more available, the need to control the interaction of trucks, cars, trains, horse-drawn vehicles, ridden horses, bicyclists, and pedestrians became evident as death rates became an issue in larger cities. Public agencies such as the American Automobile Association (AAA), the Highway Users Federation for Safety and Mobility, and the Association of Casualty and Surety Companies called on government agencies to provide better roadway surfaces, roadway signs, roadway controls, driver evaluation, and driver licensing.

Government agencies responded to these lobbying efforts with roadway building projects and driver licensing programs. Legislative actions provided funding for roadways and licensing agencies. Minimum requirements for licensure established a need to train novice automobile drivers to operate a vehicle effectively. Some local school districts in Pennsylvania and Michigan conducted training programs to help novice drivers as early as 1929. Amos Neyhart, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, established the first recognized driver education curriculum program in 1934. He worked with the State College School District to develop a curriculum for driver education at the high school level. Neyhart became known throughout the United States as the father of high school driver education. His efforts to train high school driver education instructorsefforts that were supported by AAAhave long been recognized as the start of driver education for high school-age youth. Herbert J. Stack developed the Center for Safety Education at New York University in 1938 and is remembered as the father of safety education in the United States.

Goals and Purposes

The American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA) developed a comprehensive driver education plan to provide an effective educational component for graduated licensing efforts. The goals of such a program would include:

  • ensuring that novice drivers are trained for practice driving and capable of entering the restricted licensing process, through the use of a competency-based training and assessment process
  • instituting a competency-based training and assessment process for drivers moving from a restricted licensing stage to an unrestricted licensing stage
  • ensuring that trained novice drivers qualify for appropriate reductions in insurance premiums
  • ensuring that novice drivers are trained to recognize risk and potential consequences in order to make reduced-risk choices
  • ensuring that novice drivers make choices to eliminate alcohol or other drug use while using a motor vehicle
  • ensuring that novice drivers will use occupant protection as a crash countermeasure
  • ensuring that novice drivers are capable of using anger management skills to avoid aggressive driving
  • ensuring that novice drivers are capable of recognizing fatigue factors that contribute to crashes
  • ensuring that novice drivers are trained to deal successfully with new vehicle technologies
  • ensuring that novice drivers and mentors work together as a team in practicing risk-reduction driving strategies as a component of the lifelong driver development process

Course Offerings in the School Curriculum

Course offerings in the public school curriculum vary in each state, commonwealth, or territory as a result of licensing efforts controlled by state agencies and institutions not under direct federal government control. The course offerings, when offered in the public setting, are often conducted outside the school day or as a summer course. The courses are usually minimum requirement courses consisting of thirty to thirty-five hours of classroom instruction combined with four to eight hours of in-car training. The school curriculum includes traffic safety programs from kindergarten through senior high school in the scope and sequence of the school district program. These programs are usually not coordinated efforts but develop on the expertise and interest of the instructor, students, or parents.

Student Enrollment

Student enrollment in driver education varies as a result of state requirements, but studies funded by AAA and ADTSEA indicated that 30 percent of the nation's driving population had enrolled in a driver education program prior to licensing. Nearly 40 percent of novice drivers had completed a driver education program for licensing or insurance requirements. These figures are significantly lower than those for the period from 1965 through 1980 when more than 60 percent were enrolled prior to licensing and up to 70 percent of novice drivers completed a state-approved program for licensing or insurance requirements.

Issues and Trends

Trends in driver and traffic safety education include the shifting of training responsibility from public agencies to private agencies in larger cities. Rural areas are continuing to provide training in the public agencies often because of the lack of an appropriate private agency to provide the training.

The advancement of new vehicle technology has provided a challenge for driver and traffic safety instructors. The technology development is moving forward at a rapid pace while instruction techniques are slow to be released by agencies developing the technologies. Instructors and novice drivers often use vehicles with the new technologies and therefore have to teach/learn new driving techniques even though the vehicles that novice drivers often use do not have the new features and technology.

Public financing of driver education continues to decline, so parents and novice drivers are increasingly bearing most of the costs associated with driver and traffic safety education. Parents are beginning to assume new roles because the instructor needs to work with both student and parent regarding new technology and techniques for vehicle control. Parents are assuming more responsibility under graduated licensing programs for training novice drivers and for developing them into responsible roadway users.

Effectiveness of the Program

Program effectiveness has been considered by many agencies and been the subject of a number of reports throughout the period of federal involvement in crash reduction that began with the passage of the Federal Highway Safety Act of 1966. This act required that states provide comprehensive highway safety programs, including driver education. Unfortunately, the state of knowledge regarding the effectiveness of driver education in the early twenty-first century provides no certainty, and much doubt, that the return on this enormous effort will be commensurate with the investment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has supported training efforts for drivers in a number of ways. NHTSA supported a study of driver training techniques over a period of five years in De Kalb County, Georgia, and found that elaborate training programs were no more effective than more basic instruction in crash reduction. The study found that a more comprehensive program resulted in a reduction in crashes for a six-month period but that the effects diminished as time increased. The comparisons in this study involving education methods were misconstrued by the public and media to mean that driver education did not work. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety continues to support driver education as an adequate program for prelicensing efforts in a graduated licensing system, but not as a crash reduction program.

Driver education has been criticized as a program that does not reduce young driver crashes. To their credit, driver and traffic safety education efforts have long been designed to aid the driver in gaining a license to meet minimum standards designed by state agencies. The driver education programs designed in states that require driver education for state licensure have demonstrated a reduced crash rate for fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-old drivers when compared to states that do not require driver education for licensure. Michigan developed a graduated licensing program involving two phases of driver education for novice drivers and has demonstrated a reduced crash rate for teen drivers. North Carolina provides driver education as the first stage of a graduated license and has demonstrated a reduction in crash rates. Kentucky, however, does not require driver education as part of its initial phase of graduated licensing and has not demonstrated a reduced crash rate for teen drivers. Such research may indicate that driver and traffic safety education needs to be part of a graduated licensing program as well as the lifelong learning process.

See also: School-Linked Services.


Agent, Kenneth R.; Pigman, Jerry G.; Steenbergen, L. C.; Pollack, Susan H.; Kidd, Pamela S.; and McCoy, C. 2002. "Evaluation of the Kentucky Graduated Driver Licensing System." Lexington: University of Kentucky Highway Safety Research Center.

Association of Casualty and Surety Companies. Department of Public Safety. 1949. Man and the Motor Car, 4th edition. New York: Peter Mallon.

Robinson, Allen R., and Kline, Terry L. 2000. "Traffic Safety Education Driver Development Outcomes for the Life Long Learning Process: Restricted Licensure Qualification Segment I and Unrestricted Licensure Qualification Segment II." Indiana: American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Seaton, Don Cash; Stack, Herbert J.; and Loft, Bernard I. 1969. Administration and Supervision of Safety Education. New York: Macmillan.

U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Secretary's Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety. 1968. Report of the Secretary's Advisory Committee, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Weaver, J. A. 1987. "Follow-up Evaluation of the Safe Performance Curriculum Driver Education Project." Presentation to Research Division of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, Spokane, Washington.

Terry L. Kline

Vanessa Wigand