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The State of Driver Education

Reviewed of the current driver education literature in order to identify novice driver needs

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has sponsored a project to “reinvent” driver education into a form that reduces crashes by novice drivers. The research team reviewed the current driver education literature in order to identify novice driver needs, evaluate methods of instruction, and assess the effectiveness of driver education in influencing behaviour. The researchers then proposed performance objectives for driver education graduates and methods for achieving those objectives.

The main function of current driver education is to support mobility. New drivers need a certain level of skill in order to pass a state or provincial licensing test and satisfy the concerns of their parents or guardians. Driver education helps meet this need. However, the additional need exists to improve the safety performance of novice drivers. When a large-scale study in DeKalb County, Georgia, failed to show a net safety benefit, driver education lost much government support. Although some jurisdictions and suppliers of curriculum materials have continued to develop their programs, in overall terms driver education has declined in the last 15 years.

This paper identifies ways to restructure driver education to realize its potential for improving safety. This new driver education must operate, at least initially, within current resource limitations. It must be modular and flexible to accommodate different programs and a variety of scales, standards, and resources in different jurisdictions. To be widely accepted, curriculum materials should be packaged for easy and straightforward delivery in poorly capitalized, low-tech instructional environments.

Novice drivers experience serious crash losses far beyond their representation in the driver population or their proportion of mileage driven. As a group they take between five and seven years to reach mature risk levels. However, they vary widely in cultural background, life situation, skills, ability, motivation, level of experience, and crash risk. The difference between male and female behaviours and risks are the best known (although sex differences seem to be diminishing).

The number of novice drivers has been declining for many years, and this has reduced new driver losses. However, this trend will reverse over the rest of the decade as the “baby boom echo” reaches driving age. In addition, economic recession reduces the number of young driver fatalities, so economic recovery may contribute to increased young driver fatalities in the later 1990s. Over the next few years the problem of novice drivers of all ages will take on greater importance.

New drivers lack important skills, particularly those needed to acquire and process information. They are less able to maintain full attention and less likely to take in the information they need from the driving environment. They are not as good as experienced drivers in scanning the environment, recognizing potential hazards while they are still at a safe distance, and making tough decisions quickly. They tend to underestimate the danger of certain risky situations and overestimate the danger in others.

Improved skills alone are not sufficient to ensure new driver safety, however. The safety effects of good driving skills appear to be offset by overconfidence and increased exposure to risk. Better-trained novice drivers become licensed sooner and drive more, in part because of their own increased confidence, but also because their parents often give them more freedom to drive.

Crashes are caused by what drivers choose to do as much as by what they are able (or unable) to do. Most of novice drivers’ increased risk comes from inappropriate behaviour — deliberately taking risky actions, seeking stimulation, driving at high speeds, and driving while impaired. Compared to more experienced drivers, novice drivers more often choose to drive too fast and follow other vehicles too closely. They run yellow lights more, accept smaller gaps in traffic, and allow less room for safety. As a result of their choices and perhaps because of skill deficiencies as well, they have more rear-end crashes and runoff- the-road crashes than experienced drivers.