More than 2,000 traffic fatalities across the nation each year, including more than 50 in Maryland, can be attributed to "16 and 17-year-old drivers because of driver education," the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has concluded in a highly-controversial study released recently.

The study, now being criticized by safety groups around the country as erroneous and biased against the 40-year-old driver education movement, contends that 80 percent of high-risk 16, and 17-year-old-drivers in states like Maryland would not be licensed, and thus not involved in accidents, if they had not completed driver's education training.

In Maryland and about two dozen other states, the traditional minimum driving age of 16 has been raised to 18, but 16 and 17-year-olds may seek licenses if they have completed driver training courses.The change, enacted in Maryland in 1968, was made primarily, say state officials, so young drivers would have to take driver education courses. It was based on the generally accepted, though still unproven, assumption that driver training produces safer drivers and thus saves lives.

However, the study by the Insurance Institute - an independent Washington-based group funded primarily by insurance companies, many of which still offer 10 to 15 percent discounts to persons who complete driver education courses - claims that driver education nationally has produced "no demonstrated benefit." It concludes that "programs that increase confidence that risk has been reduced, when in fact it has not, are far worse than no programs at all. Such is the case with driver education."

With driver education for 16- and 17-year-old "any possible benefits obtained from having younger teen-agers learn to drive will continue to be gained at a large cost in human life," says the report by Leon S. Robertson and Paul L. Zador of the Institute staff.

James Nichols, director of driver programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), has criticized the study "because its strong, sensational language suggests a biased view, uses extreme terms and makes it appear that driver education makes people worse drivers."

Nichols and many school officials agree with one part of the study - that driver education programs probably increase the number of teen-agers who get licenses ("just as a high school cooking course probably will interest more students in cooking," says one state official. But most officials object to the Insurance Institute "blaming" 2,000 traffic deaths a year on driver education, and Nichols calls "inflated" the contention that eight of 10 students would not be licensed if it were not been for driver training.

Nichols said DOT took the same figures the Institute did, but used a slightly larger statistical sampling, to try to determine the percentage of teen-agers being licensed because they had completed driver's education. Based on that information, Nichols said, the percentage is "probably no more than 30 to 40 percent not 80 percent.

"It's definitely not the case that things get worse in states which have driver education laws, which the study implies, in fact, just the opposite is true.

"There's no question that driver education is very effective, useful and valuable to society, particularly since many parents do not take the time to teach their children to drive and don't do a very good job when they do."

Nichols contends that the Institute historically has had a bias against driver education, which Institute officials deny.

"They see savings in highway safety from modification of vehicles and roadways," Nichols said, "but basically they appear to believe it's almost impossible to modify driver behavior."

Robertson acknowledges there has been an "outcry" about the study from several states with driver education programs, but says he has asked them to send any statistics they believe will contradict his figures. "So far we've gotten nothing."

The Institute has since issued a "narrative summary" of the study (a retraction, according to safety groups), which Institute Vice President Ben Kelley insists is simply an explanation, needed because the study has been misinterpreted.

The summary repeats most of the original conclusions, but in milder language, omits the conclusion linking driver education with 2,000 deaths a year and insists the Institute "made No finding that driver education should be abolished . . . nor did the research in any way suggest that driver education is not needed . . ."

Maryland's coordinator of driver education, Robert Lazarewicz, contends that the Institute work "isn't a study of driver education at all. It's a study of the age of licensing. Robertson and Zador are saying in essence that if driver education were abolished 80 percent of the 16-year-olds would wait until they were 18 or older to get licenses . . . which is kind of incredible, in fact almost totally erroneous."

In public, private or parochial schools in Maryland, about 55,000 students, 16 and 17 years old, are enrolled in free high school driver training courses; about 15,000 others in commercial driver education courses, says Lazarewicz.

"That is about 95 percent of the eligible teen-agers in the state," he said.

The state funds 50 percent of the $3.5-million school program, with counties or cities picking up the rest.

Maryland officials are convinced, that driver education pays off, not because there are any definitive studies to prove it, but because "our insurance industry data show driver education graduates are significantly better drivers as far as loss ratios go . . . about 15 to 20 percent better and that's why insurance companies give driver education graduates a discount," says Lazarewicz.

Although the study does not include highway traffic statistics by state, Maryland State Police records show that 16- and 17-year-olds were involved in (but did not necessarily cause) 60 traffic fatalities in 1976 and 4,651 serious injury accidents. The figures for the previous four years were almost identical.

Another organization that is critical of the study is the Highway Users Federation, which is funded by more than 600 groups, including the American Automobile Association.

"We advocate and feel very strongly about quality driver education programs," says Bob M. Calvin, manager of highway safety programs for the federation. "We find it hard to believe that the data supports the study's conclusions, and we are concerned that the inference people receive from the study is that driver education is killing people.

"Driver education has gotten a lot of criticism because there has not been an approved study that shows it's effective. But then there are none that show it's been ineffective.

"We estimate there are at least 60 million drivers on the road who have had driver education, about half of all drivers in the country, and we do know that the death rate - per 100 million passenger miles - has dropped 75 percent in the past 40 years . . . which was when driver education programs were first conceived."

William Cushman, director of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, the national organization for driver education programs, has called the Institute study "an expression of viewpoint based on questionable methodology."

Cushman has urged the Institute to support the study, which he calls "selective and speculative, with conclusive evidence, and said the study is "particularly regrettable since so many of (the Institute's) members support driver education, particularly for teen-agers."

One of the Institute's supporters, the Allstate Insurance Co., has said: "We are puzzled by the conclusions reached in the study and are still analyzing it . . . our figures show 15 percent fewer dollar losses by those with driver education than those without it."

The National Safety Council in Chicago, one of the nation's premier highway safety groups, is reviewing the Institute study, and has not yet issued an opionion. However, the manager of the council's statistics department, Jack Recht, said, "There are some very important drawbacks . . . and flaws in the study."

Recht said that eliminating any age group from driving abviously would reduce traffice deaths, so it is perhaps unfair to say that "at least 2,000 fatal crashes that would not otherwise occur" are caused by 16- and 17-year-olds.

Actually, said Recht, 16- and 17-year-olds may not be the age group causing, proportionately, the most traffic deaths, although on the average they are involved in twice as many fatal accidents as the average for all ages. The age group statistically shown to have the worst driving record is the 20- to 24-year-old bracket. He added, however, that such figures could be misleading since that age group does much more driving than teen-agers.

What many expect will be a fairly definitive study of driver education, particularly of its curriculum, is a large-scale demonstration project DOT has just begun in DeKalb County, Georgia. In the county, which has not had a driver education program, DOT will monitor the experiences of two basic groups: Students randomly selected to take driver training courses and those not enrolled in such a program. Throughout the four-year study DOT research teams will monitor and compare the driving experiences of both groups.