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Safety Experts Doubt Benefits Of Driver's Ed

Lots of Practice With Parent Seen as Surest Way to Learn

By Fredrick Kunkle and Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page A01

Traffic accidents involving teenage drivers that have killed 17 people in the Washington area since September have raised concerns about the effectiveness of driver's education, with safety advocates citing evidence that the programs fail to reduce fatalities.

"Driver's education programs don't lead to crash reduction," said Allan Williams, chief scientist with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by the insurance industry and based in Arlington County. "The courses around here don't teach you how to drive as much as how to pass the driving test."

During her final driving lesson, Sarah Oluich, 16, checks her rearview mirror as instructor Jim Fraser watches traffic on Route 40 in Frederick. She says she's practiced driving with her mother just once. "She's too scared," Oluich says. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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Operators of area driving programs say the training, which is required in Maryland and Virginia, gives teenagers a valuable chance to learn traffic rules and get needed practice through classroom lectures and several hours on the road. Recently, some commercial schools have introduced "high performance" classes that teach emergency driving skills.

Yet national safety studies suggest that these approaches have not been proved to lower the accident rates of young drivers over the long term. What does improve safety, experts say, is experience -- many hours of behind-the-wheel practice with a parent in the passenger seat, for example -- and raising the minimum age for getting a driver's permit or license.

"As it's currently configured, driver's education might make a difference in the first six months of driving," said Jeffrey W. Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "But after that, it doesn't matter much."

Some experts say that because driving schools tend to offer too few hours behind the wheel -- and in such states as Oklahoma and South Dakota, completion of them lowers the age at which a teenager can begin driving alone -- they may even contribute to a rise in accidents.

The number of U.S. drivers ages 15 to 20 involved in fatal crashes rose 5 percent -- to 7,884 -- from 1993 to 2003, with a slight decline last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For all others , the overall fatality rate has come down.

The federal agency plans to evaluate driver's education programs next year, officials said.

Whether offered through public schools or private companies, driver's education programs are still widely perceived as the gold standard for preparing teenagers to drive, said Williams, who cited one survey in which about 86 percent of Americans polled agreed that such training is "very important."

But other studies in the United States and abroad have come to a stark conclusion, Williams wrote in an article published this year: "There is no difference in the crash records of driver education graduates compared with equivalent groups of beginners who learned to drive without formal education."

The alarming series of crashes in the Washington area involving teenage drivers -- a 3-year-old girl was killed in one of the accidents -- has called attention to the fact that in this region, where you live helps determine how you learn to drive.

Maryland, Virginia and the District have adopted what is known as graduated driver's licenses, which phase in driving privileges, for young people. The jurisdictions, however, vary in their approaches to driver's education.

In Maryland, driver's education is required. Since 1995, when the state stopped paying for the training in public schools, parents have had to send their children to commercial driving schools.

Virginia continues to offer driver's education in public schools and mandates that beginning drivers younger than 19 complete driver's education. The state also requires that private driving schools give students nearly twice as much driving time -- about 12 hours on the road -- as Maryland does.

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