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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

National Transportation Safety Board Promotes Driver's Education Overhaul

Auto Accidents Number One Cause of Teen Death

Driver's education has long been an afterthought on the academic agenda. Yet despite all the courses a student will take, the driver's education course might be the only one actually created to keep him or her alive. Now, as the 2006-2007 school calendar begins, federal and state officials are revaluating whether driver's ed course are really preparing young drivers for the road.

In 2005, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the standard driver's ed course was created without rhyme or reason—and hasn't been updated in 50 years!

In fact, the NTSB discovered that there's never been a solid critique of driver's education, which leaves schools at a serious disadvantage concerning what to teach and require from young drivers.

Yet the number one cause of teenage death is auto accidents. Almost 6,000 teens died and 303,000 were hurt in car crashes in 2004. Teenagers comprise 6 percent of all licensed drivers, but they are involved in 14 percent of fatal accidents.

"There is no national outrage about this," observed acting chairman of the safety board Mark Rosenker. "The outrage only comes when there are huge accidents. But we are trying to do something about it. I really believe education is where we can make the greatest impact."

Across the United States, driver's education courses are a mismatch. Most—but not all—states require young drivers to complete a course to obtain their drivers license. Standards such as the amount of classroom time and real practice time behind the wheel, and whether there is any commonsense coordination between the two, vary from state to state. Many schools don't offer courses at all, forcing parents to pay for private classes.

Mike Orr, a driver's education instructor at Rockridge High School in Taylor Ridge, Ill, believes instruction isn't always the problem. He feels that within 2 weeks of classes he can tell which kids will be poor drivers because of a lack of maturity and sense of responsibility.

"Driving expertise comes from attitude, not just skills," said Orr. "You can't legislate parenting skills. Those responsibilities have to be taught day one in the classroom, from kindergarten all the way through. But more importantly, it's got to be taught at home."

Allen Carden encourages his students at Pinellas Park High School in Largo, Florida, to demand more practice time from their parents. He has been known to call parents himself to make an unequivocal case: Your child needs driving practice.

Carden does not mince words as he teaches—such as, check your blind spot, or you may end up in a coffin.

"Let's be realistic here," he says to his students. "Some of you may not be doing algebra problems when you're 35. Some of you may not be doing science experiments. But you're going to be driving. We're putting you behind the wheel of a two-ton killing machine. That's why it's so important that you understand the correct procedures of every single thing you do."

To improve driver education quality and consistency, the safety board has called for a national model to be adopted by all states. But the Education Department says its role is limited because, according to the Constitution, education is a state and local affair.

But the department is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to share its safety ideas with schools.

With some prodding, states are toughening their laws. Nowadays all states have a variant of graduated driver's licensing. It usually prohibits driving after dark and bars teen passengers until young drivers accumulate hours of driving experience.

Private groups are also trying to help fill gaps in driver's education. The Ford Motor Co. has financed a free program for teens called "Driving Skills for Life," using a Web site, a video, and driving camps to simulate experiences, such as what to do if you start hydroplaning along a wet road, to prepare young drivers for more than a licensing test.

"When kids get in a panicked situation and everything happens so fast, they may say in the back of their mind, 'OK, I've done this before. I can handle it,'" noted Chris Murphy, vice chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, co-sponsor of the program.

Along with motor vehicle safety, driver education helps ensure the safety of young Americans. The National Safety Commission recommends The Driver Education Handbook for Parents as a valuable teaching tool for parents who are concerned with their teen's driving safety and understand the value of quality instruction.

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The National Safety Commission, Inc.
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Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32004-3359

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