The time is right to reform driver’s ed

From every angle America’s driving culture is beginning to falter and in some very succinct ways showing signs of slowing down. After 40 something years of urban growth that supported the expansion of suburbs and highway systems the urban planning community and many municipal governments are beginning to see the error of their ways and move towards more sustainable patterns of growth. This hasn’t been universal, but the trends are certainly showing greater embrace of human environment that are not explicitly car-centric. Indeed, the behaviors of Americans are even beginning to show a shift. Younger Americans are learning to drive later and there are some substantial increases in biking and transit use. Makes me wonder if the time is ripe to reform driver’s education at a national level. Driver’s ed is an institution that is oddly placed in American culture. At one end it plays a significant role in what, for many Americans, is still an important mile stone: learning to drive. But, it definitely sets the tone for how we’ll drive our how life through and reflects our strong driving culture.

Reforming driver’s education in the USA has the potential to radically change the way we move about. Young Americans can very easily get their driver’s licenses by attending what is rather minimal instructional courses beginning before students are 16 years old. That is how it went in my household. My driver’s ed experience was in no means good. In fact, it is amazing that any of the people who went through the process turned into good drivers. The equipment was old and the teachers were in charge of 50 plus students. One class period for example we were responsible for naming things that might be good to have in a car for emergencies. I was probably the 45th person to be asked and despite there being a lot of good things reasonable to have in a car for safety finding 45 individual things is hard. My answer ultimately: fire.

This epitomizes what driver’s ed is like in so many places. It is lackluster and ill-prepares young people for the responsibility to drive. This creates a situation wherein I think Americans generally become bad or irresponsible drivers over the course of their lives. I more often fear drivers walking around the city more than I do the possibility of being the victim of violent crime. This isn’t to say driver’s ed is poor nationwide. Recently Oregon has been lauded for improving standards for driver’s education programs and has seen a decrease in related youth fatalities. In most other places in the USA the first year driving remains one of the most dangerous years of young Americans’ lives.

These experience compare with what a young German goes through to learn to drive. My German exchange brother went through two years of driver’s education course  at costs exceeding €2,000 for example. My siblings and I as well as most of our friends spent little more than one semester in the classroom and certainly less than a few hundred dollars in real costs for the whole process. Germans can begin courses before they’re 16 years old, but have to be 18 to drive. In Germany, this is done for multiple reasons, but primarily to prepare drivers for the road as best possible and discourage young people from driving until they’re a) actually ready or b) absolutely need to learn.

For these last reasons though it appears that now may be the time to seriously begin considering options for reforming driver’s education and licensing laws and requirements to better fit a world where we drive less, but also expect more from those behind the wheel of a car.

First, the sheer lack of any national standards for driver’s education programs demands changing. Standards need to be established. Although Oregon has demonstrated that improvements can come from the state level the lack of national standards puts no pressure on states that are less than progressive in improving something as crucial as driver’s education as a public safety issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does have guidelines, there are not binding however. The programs should receive constant revision and be designed to produce the best possible drivers. Such programs should focus on much more than good driving, rather responsible driving. It should include segments on anger management behind the wheel, respect for other road users as well as cyclists and pedestrians. Programs should look at driving not as the unquestioned means of transportation in the United States, but talk about congestion, why it happens, multi-modal transportation options, and combining cars into a network of mobility options. It should also put a strong emphasis on the civic responsibility that one undertakes to drive safe.

Secondly, I think it is time to push back the minimum driving age for most young Americans. It is understandable to me that a driving age as young as 16 may remain pertinent in some of the country’s more rural locations, however it is unreasonable to argue that all 16 year olds should be granted such a responsibility due to the small segment of them who live in places too rural to see biking or public transit as viable options. I would argue its time to push back the minimum driving age to 18 and the minimum learners permits age to 16, except in cases when people live in areas deemed appropriate to begin learning younger.

Such areas should not include poorly designed areas of suburban sprawl. Part of reforming driver’s eduction should certainly be to encourage more sustainable living arrangements. Sprawl has been proven to be an unhealthy social, economic, and environmental model of living and needs to be systematically tackled. This can be done partially though encouraging more developers and communities to demand better town planning, but also by making the prospects of youth immobility a disincentive to choose to live in sprawling poorly connected places. It is not unfathomable to think that part of the reason sprawl is so reasonable a living arrangement is that we casually grant young people the privilege to drive.

Additionally, it may help equalize some of the ironies of American society. While getting a driver’s license is still a major mile stone for many young Americans and the moment is hyped up in American media it is odd that in this country it is considered reasonable to grant young people the heavy responsibility of driving, but these same young people are considered too immature to watch movies with explicit sexuality, nor are they considered responsible enough to consume alcohol or vote. Granted these laws reflect a complex mix of politics and culture, but such things change as the evidence by the drop in 16 and 17 year olds getting licenses.

Finally, this should all be done not over a semester of a year, but over two or more years. Driver’s education should by no means be a rushed affair. It should be undertaken within a time frame that makes for responsible, prepared drivers.

Ultimately a cultural change is necessary, but possibly already underway. Driving can no longer be seen as a right, but rather a privilege. Much of this change can be approached via driver’s ed using it as a way to 1) make our roads safer 2) save lives and 3) better integrate multi-modal living models into our society. Safer roads are a boon for everybody and seeing a move towards more sustainable living models would be an added bonus and potential result of such changes to driver’s education.