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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happy Birthday, Driver’s Education!

An American Rite of Passage Turns 75

Driver's education classes have become a rite of passage for teenagers, and it all started 75 years ago at Pennsylvania’s State High. Whether it was really 75 years ago, though, depends on whom you believe.

Varying sources offer conflicting dates of that first wheel-gripping class taught by Amos Neyhart, an industrial engineering professor at local Penn State University. A university historical guide claims 1933 as the first year, while AAA goes with 1934. A State High reference book lists 1935.

Whatever the actual date, Happy Valley - as locals call this rural area - is the birthplace of driver's education.

"They had all the firsts," said Allen Robinson, CEO of the Pennsylvania-based American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. "No one, in terms of a city schools system, is as good as State College."

The majority of states let residents attain at least a provisional license at age 16, when a young person is in their sophomore or junior year in high school.

Citing federal statistics, Robinson said of the roughly six million 16-year-olds nationwide, about 2.5 million earn their license at that age each year. Of those 2.5 million, 60 percent learn to drive at a public school system.

All those programs can trace their origins to State High.

Just as generations of teenagers did before them, students like 16-year-old Anna Juska dream of the soupcon of freedom a license will bring them from the mom-and-dad shuttle service.

"I am so excited to finally have that freedom, even though my parents said I have to wait a little before I drive a little farther" out of State College, a smiling Anna after a recent class.

Like scores of other schools, State High students first take a 30-hour lecture course to prepare for their learner's permit, something they are eligible for at age 16.

Do you recall those classroom videos of safe-driving techniques and staged accidents? They’re still being watched, just from DVDs, instead of grainy film reels.

Dimming the lights one recent morning, teacher Alan Crafts turned on the overhead projector in his classroom. His walls were adorned with posters of classic cars and educational messages like "Buckle Up."

"School zones and parking lots can be dangerous," the narrator says as a driver makes his way down a street. "Many accidents involving property damages occur in parking lots, so always be aware of other drivers, and always give that little extra time to be ..."

Most students welcome class; they need to pass it, after all, to get their permit.

"It's pretty real; you learn a lot of stuff," said 16-year-old Bryn Shea. "You should probably pay attention or else you won't know how to drive."

For 31 years, Crafts has taught driver's ed, the past six at State High.

"I've got this down to an exact science," he said.

Getting to know the students is the best part of the job, he said. But he cautioned that the most difficult part is getting students to understand the potential dangers of driving.

"It's like breathing. We take it for granted," Crafts said.

After a student completes the classroom course, he or she moves on to 10 hours of in-car training, which is four more hours than the state mandates.

Built in the 1960s, students drive on what is thought to be one of the first "driving ranges" dedicated solely to driver's ed.

The rectangular road course has two short roads jutting through a grass infield to simulate three-way intersections. Four at a time, students each enter a car and are scrutinized by instructors, who monitor their driving by radio outside, or from above in a two-story tower much like an air traffic control tower.

"Don't look at me; watch the cone," Fisher advised a student driver over the radio as a young man practiced backing up on a curve.

Students also got personal instruction - and fortunately for the teachers, the special student driver vehicles are outfitted with passenger side brake pedals, too.

Fisher commented some people think he's daft for teaching the teen driving classes.

"The more kind ones will say, 'You must be really brave,' or they'll say, 'You must be crazy riding with teenagers in a car,'" said Fisher.

Nationwide, driver's ed was available in public schools to roughly 90 to 95 percent of students in the early 1990s, according to Robinson.

But fewer school districts are offering the program because of what he feels are unfair questions about its effectiveness, as well as budget constraints, he said.

"School budgets, the way they've been cut the last five years, it's had a real impact," he said. Schools that once offered programs during the regular school day are now pushing classes back to after school or during summer recess.

Commercial classes can be just as effective as those administered by public schools said Robinson, who represents both private and public educators. If options are available, he said, it's up to parents to figure out which course is more appropriate for their child.

At State College, high school class was the best choice for Kelsey and Anna. The good friends and softball teammates said they are looking forward to going out to dinner to celebrate whenever either of them finally earns their license.

"If I get my license first, then I'll be the best," Kelsey quipped about her friendly wager with Anna.

Six days later, Kelsey took the driver's license test and passed.

Is your teen a safe driver? The National Safety Commission has developed a new Teen Injury Prevention course to emphasize driving safety for teenagers. For more information, including a Driver Education Book for Parents, visit

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