When Connecticut cut driver training courses from its budget in 1976, the teen-age accident rate changed dramantically. It went down.
A Yale researcher attributed those startling results to numbers. Driver training courses increase the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who are on the road, and -- driver training or no driver training -- they get in a lot of accidents.
Connecticut prohibits 16- and 17-year-olds from driving unless they have completed driver training or have their parents' permission. And parents, researchers believe, are tough to convince. "I suspect that parents may worry that their 16-year-old is not mature enough to drive, but driver education may convince reluctant parents that it's all right," said Leon S. Robertson, author of a study of the Connecticut driver education situation.
Each year more than 3.5 million high school students nationwide take driver ed at a cost of the public of more than $300 million dollars. Of those Connecticut drivers who hit the road on their 16th birthdays, one in five will be in a crash by his or her 18th birthday, according to Robertson.
"The question is whether the taxpayer ought to be charged for a program that increases the probability of death and injury," he said.
The study by the Center for Health Studies at Yale compared communities in Connecticut that elminated driver ed with those that continued to offer courses financed locally. Robertson totaled up the number of "years" driven by 16- and 17-year-old motorists. In communities that eliminated the course, the number of "years" driven by the age group dropped 57 percent, and the total number of crashes dropped by 63 percent.
In communities that continued the program, the accident rates did not change, Robertson said.
State governments currently provide about 95 percent of the funding for driver education. The federal government provides the rest. Since the inception of federal support for state programs in 1967, the federal government has invested $114 million in driver education, says Dewey Jordan, chief of program operations at the Traffic Highway Safety Division of the Transportation Department.
The federal government paid for, among other things, teacher training and what the driver and pedestrian education division of the Transportation Department calls simulators and multiple car driving ranges.
A multiple car driving range "looks like a large parking lot but it isn't," says Gary Butler, highway safety management specialist in the division. "It's pavement and has traffic lanes. There may be as many as 10 or 12 cars interacting on it at the same time," he said.
Leroy Dunn, director of the Transportation Department's driver and pedestrian education division, dismissed the results of the study as obvious. Naturally, he said, there will be more accidents if there are more drivers on the road. "If you teach someone to drive, they'll drive. Driver education is the best method I am familiar with for traiining people to drive," he said. i
The preliminary findings of a study sponsored by Dunn's division may undercut his assertion that driver ed produces better drivers. After eight months of studying 18,000 students in Georgia's De Kalb County, the division has found that while driver ed students had fewer traffic violations than students who had not taken the course, there was "no difference" in their accident rates, said Clay Hall, the Kalb project director.
The Yale study also has produced consternation at the Washington lobbying headquaters of driver education teachers group, which is supported by a long list of corporations, prominent among them major automobile and insurance companies.
William Cushman, the director of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, says he has not yet seen Robertson's study, but that he will be coming out with a criticism as soon as he obtains it. The study is published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Another group, also finanaced by insurance companies, is more sympathetic to study's findings. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provided Robertson with a grant for his study.
"I don't think that the public is well served if it thinks that driver education will reduce death and injury, because it won't," say Ben Kelley, senior vice president of the institute.
Many of the insurance companies that support the institute, however, also give substantial rate breaks to individuals who take driver ed. They say individuals who take the course are better risks.