More than 2,000 traffic fatalities across the nation each year, including as many as 50 in Virginia, can be attributed to "16 and 17-year-old drivers because of driver education," the 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 high-risk 16 and 17-year-old drivers in states like Virginia would not be licensed, and thus not involved in accidents, if they had not completed driver's education courses.

In Virginia and about two dozen other states the traditional minimum driving age of 16 has been raised to 18, but 16 and17-year-old may seek licenses if they have completed driver training courses. The change, enacted in Virginia in 1969, was made primarily, say state school officials, so young drivers would have to take driver education. It was based on the generally accepted, though unproven, assumption that driver training makes 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 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 infact 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-olds "any possible benefits obtained from having younger teenagers 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 critized 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 teenagers who get license ("just as a high school cooking course probably will interest more students in cooking," says one state officials). But most officials object to the Insurance Institute "blaming" 2,000 traffic death a year on driver education, and Nichols calls "inflated" the contention that eight of 10 students would not be licensed if it had not been for driver training.

Nichols said DOT took the same figures the Institute did, but used a slightly larger statistcal sample, to try to determine the percentage of teenagers 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 that have driver education laws, which the study implies. In fact just the opposite if 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 blas against driver education, which the Institute denies.

"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 and 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 ...."

Billy G. Johnson, director of driver education in Virginia, has called the study "a complete fallacy, a washout and unjust to the state of Virginia. They didn't want the complete statistics we had, they just selected what they wanted. We feel driver education is doing a good job and that our statistics on fatalities and conviction of graduates of driver education programs show this."

Johnson said Virginia is the only state to monitor driving records of high school students who complete driver training courses and become licensed drivers.

The system includes keeping track of the students' convictions for major traffic violations and the number of fatal accidents in which they are invovled as drivers.

Both categories have shown significant improvement since the program was begun in the 1970-71 school year, said Johnson. That year, 17.4 percent of Virginia driver education students were convicted of speeding and other traffic violations, a rate which dropped to 6 percent during the last school year, Johnson said.

In other parts of Northern Virginia, the conviction rate for such students during the past school year has varied. Of the 11,164 Fairfax County students who took driver education, 8,422 obtained licenses and 748, or 8.9 percent, were convicted of a major traffic offense during the year. All students are required to take 36 hours of classroom instruction but in-car instruction, which also is required for a license, is an elective.

In Arlington and Alexandria, the coviction rates were below the state average. Of the 1,064 Arlington students who took driver education , 868 obtained licenses and 37 or 4.3 percent, were convicted. In Alexandria, of the 586 students taking the course, 406 got licenses and 19, or 4.7 percent, were convicted or even pedestrians."

In 1971, there were 19 fatal accidents statewide in which driver education students were involved as drivers, said Johnson, a number that dropped to four during the past school year when 87,478 high school students were taking driver education courses.

The Institute study has come under fire from organizations such as 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 are concerned that the inference people receive from the study is that driver education is killing people.

"Driver education has gotten a lot of critism because there has not beeb 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 drivers on the road who have had driver education, about half of all 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 study "an expression of viewpoint based on questionable methodolgy."

Cushman has urged the Institute to support the study, which he calls "selective and speculative," with conclusive evidence and has 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 conlusions reached in the study and are still analyzing it ... out 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 opinion on it. However. the manager of its statistics department, Jack Recht, said. "There are some very important drawbacks...and flaws in the study."

Recht said that eliminating any age group from driveng obviously would reduce traffic 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, says 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 almost twice as many fata accidents as the average they for all ages. The age group statistcally shown to have the worst driving record is the 20 to 24-year-old bracket. However, he added, such figures can 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.