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Effectiveness: 2 Star Cost: $$$
Use: Medium
Time: Long

Overall Effectiveness Concerns: This countermeasure is used in many States. Its effectiveness has been examined in several research studies. The balance of the evidence suggests that these types of countermeasures are ineffective in the long term.

Driver education has long been advocated and used to teach both driving skills and safe driving practices. Driver education in high schools grew in popularity in the 1950s and by about 1970, approximately 14,000 high schools taught driver education to about 70% of all eligible teenagers. However, State and Federal funding for driver education decreased, and by the early 1990s, less than half of all high schools offered driver education, and the majority of beginning drivers did not take driver education. See Smith (1994), Mayhew (2007), or Williams et al. (2009) for  concise reviews of the history of driver education in the United States, and see Beanland et al. (2013) for a review of the effectiveness of driver training programs.

The study best known in the United States for evaluating the effect of driver education on crash rates is the extensive NHTSA-sponsored study in DeKalb County, Georgia, in the late 1970s. More than 16,000 students were randomly assigned to three groups: standard driver education; an 80-hour long course including classroom, simulation, driving range, and on-the-road components; and a control group of no formal driver education. The initial analysis found no significant difference in crashes or traffic violations among the three groups (Smith, 1994). A second analysis that tracked student driving records for a longer time found a slight crash reduction for standard course graduates during their first months of driving only, and no difference between the long course and no-course graduates. See Vernick et al. (1999) or Williams et al. (2009) for brief summaries of all DeKalb study analyses.

Roberts and Kwan (2001) concluded from three well-designed evaluations in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States that driver education may lower the age teenagers become licensed but does not affect their crash rates once they do become licensed. The net effect of driver education may actually increase crashes because it puts more young drivers on the road. Vernick et al. (1999) reached the same conclusion from a review of 9 studies, 8 from the United States and 1 from Australia. It has been suggested that crash outcomes are not appropriate or fair measures for driver education and are unrealistic to expect (Waller, 2003). A New Zealand study (after controlling for other factors) found newly licensed drivers who had received their full licenses sooner for completing defensive driving courses were more likely to receive citations for committing traffic offenses (Begg & Brookland, 2015).

In contrast, some studies have found decreases in crash risk associated with driver education. An evaluation of Oregon’s driver education program showed small decreases in the risk of collisions and convictions for teens who had participated in the driver education program (Mayhew et al., 2017). Another archival study concluded there is a decrease in crash risk associated with driver education (4.3%, AAAFTS, 2014), but this reduction is modest compared with those associated with GDL. This result is consistent with the suggestion that it may be unreasonable to expect pre-licensure driver education to produce sizable changes in crash risk given the amount of time and resources dedicated to it (Waller, 2003). Given that an effect of this size would require research that includes over 140,000 students to reliably detect differences in crash rates between students who do and do not complete driver education, it is unsurprising that most previous evaluations have failed to detect any effect of driver education.

NHTSA concluded that driver education should be integrated into State GDL programs as there was no evidence that driver education alone provided consistent effects (Compton & Ellison-Potter, 2008; Thomas, Blomberg, & Fisher, 2012). It also concluded that driver education should be distributed over time. NHTSA proposed a two-stage driver education system, both pre-licensure and post-licensure. (See the Young Drivers chapter, Section 2.2 for further discussion.) Through support from the driver education community and the Association of National Stakeholders in Traffic Safety Education (ANSTSE), NHTSA developed the Novice Teen Driver Education and Training Administrative Standards (NTDETAS) to enhance driver education delivery in the States (NHTSA, 2010, 2017). In addition to an overall revision of the 2009 NTDETAS, the new version includes updates to the instructor training and instruction delivery standards (NHTSA, 2017). The NTDETAS recommends the use of 45 hours of classroom instruction, 10 hours behind-the-wheel, and 10 hours of additional flexible instruction consisting of classroom, observation, range, simulation, or computer-based independent learning.

NHTSA offers a State Assessment Program to assist States in meeting the standards. At a State’s request, NHTSA will send a team of peers with expertise in different areas of the NTDETAS to review current State practices and make recommendations for improving the program. The Oregon DOT’s driver education program was the second U.S. program to participate in a Driver Education Assessment. Mayhew et al. (2017) discuss Oregon’s driver education program and its initiative to integrate driver education and GDL by including specifics about how teens are encouraged to take Oregon’s driver education program, which directly links to the State GDL system.

Many States offer incentives for taking driver education. Twenty-five States encourage it by allowing teens to get unrestricted licenses at an earlier age if they complete driver education, and 18 States offer other incentives such as reducing the required number of supervised driving hours, waiving portions of licensing tests, or lowering the minimum permit age (Thomas, Blomberg, & Fisher, 2012). However, research shows that driver education “discounts” may have the opposite effect of increasing crashes (Mayhew, 2007). For example, a study in British Columbia found that crash rates were 27% higher for driver education graduates who reduced their learner’s permit holding period by 3 months than for non-graduates (Wiggins, 2004).

Use: NHTSA investigated driver education requirements in the United States and found that 23 States and the District of Columbia require some form of driver education before licensure for anyone younger than 18 (Thomas, Blomberg, & Fisher, 2012). Most commonly, this included 30 hours of classroom instruction and 6 hours of behind-the-wheel practice, although requirements vary considerably across States. For example, 15 States accepted online driver education in lieu of standard in-person classroom-based instruction (Thomas, Blomberg, Korbelak, et al., 2012). Most States offered both commercial and high school driver education programs (Thomas, Blomberg, & Fisher, 2012).

Effectiveness: Driver education leads to earlier licensure in some States and does not reduce crash rates (Mayhew, 2007; Roberts & Kwan, 2001; Thomas, Blomberg, & Fisher, 2012; Vernick et al., 1999; Williams et al., 2009). At best, safety benefits of driver education have thus far been somewhat positive (Mayhew et al., 2017). Nonetheless, there has been a growing interest in improving and evaluating driver education. Potential avenues for driver education were summarized in a research circular by the Transportation Research Board (TRB, 2006). The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has produced a series of publications that provide practical information on how to conduct evaluations of driver education (Clinton & Lonero, 2006), and NHTSA conducted a feasibility study on evaluating driver education curriculum (Williams et al., 2009).

There have been advances in developing new training modules that can be part of driver education programs, summarized in Thomas, Blomberg, and Fisher (2012). Given that visual scanning, attention maintenance, and speed management are likely responsible for many crashes among young drivers,  new programs have been developed that focus on teaching these higher-order knowledge and skills, generally using computer simulation. The Risk Awareness and Perception Training (RAPT) program is a computer-based training module designed to improve visual scanning, hazard anticipation, and hazard avoidance skills in novice drivers (Pollatsek et al., 2006; Pradhan et al., 2009). Other computer-based training programs have also been developed, including SAFE-T, which addresses similar skills as RAPT—hazard anticipation, hazard avoidance, and attention maintenance to the forward roadway (Yamani et al., 2016). Similarly, the Accelerated Curriculum to Create Effective Learning (ACCEL) is an omnibus PC-based training program targeted at building six skills in novice drivers—strategic hazard anticipation, tactical hazard anticipation, strategic attention mitigation, tactical attention mitigation, strategic attention maintenance, and tactical attention maintenance (Fisher et al., 2018). The SAFE-T and ACCEL training programs have shown positive outcomes in limited, small-scale evaluations; however, they have not yet been evaluated as integrated parts of a driver education program. See also Unverricht et al. (2018) for a review and meta-analysis of novice driver training programs.

NHTSA funded a set of studies to further enhance RAPT and evaluate its effectiveness. Participants in the first study viewed high-quality graphics of hazardous situations and were asked to click on locations in the scene that they would look at if they were driving (Thomas et al., 2016). The evaluation was conducted in California in collaboration with the California DMV. A total of 5,251 drivers 16 to 18 years old were recruited and assigned to either the RAPT or a comparison control group. Outcomes from this study showed a 23.7% lower crash risk for male drivers who received the RAPT training relative to the male drivers in the comparison group. The results for female drivers showed a statistically non-significant increase of 10.7% in crash risk compared to the comparison group. The authors propose that further research with larger and diverse samples might help identify reasons for potential gender differences in estimated crash risk. In a further enhancement of RAPT, Thomas et al. (2017) updated the graphics from the first study to high-definition videos and animations. An evaluation of this version with 205 trainees reported that the revisions were a significant improvement over previous implementation.

Costs: Even a minimal driver education course of 30 hours in the classroom and 6 hours on the road requires extensive funds. Driver education also requires students to find time for it in their schedules of high school classes, extracurricular and summer activities, and jobs.

Time to implement: A driver education course requires at least a year to plan and implement.

Other issues:

  • Parent involvement: There has been a growing interest in integrating parents into driver education. For example, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Montana and four counties in Northern Virginia require parents to attend a parent information/orientation session as a part of their teen’s driver education requirements (GHSA, 2013). Virginia passed legislation in 2009 requiring a minimum of 90 minutes of parent participation in the in-classroom portion of driver education. Similarly, Massachusetts and Connecticut require parents to attend a 2-hour driver education orientation programs. In 2012 Montana revised its Traffic Education Standards to include a provision that parents of teens in driver education must attend a mandatory session and the State specified the content that must be included in the information session. Parents appear to support these requirements. In a national survey, a majority (70%) of parents reported that orientation courses should be required (Williams et al., 2011). Nonetheless, research has not yet determined the most effective way to involve parents in the driver education process (GHSA, 2013).