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Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as Benefits of Driver Ed. Classes for Teens Questioned

Benefits of Driver Ed. Classes for Teens Questioned

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Driver education may not be the best way to promote safe driving, a new study suggests.

Teenagers who enroll in a driver education course are no less likely to get into an accident than their peers who haven't taken a driving course, according to the report published in this month's American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In fact, the authors conclude, driving courses are associated with a greater risk of crashes because they provide teenagers with the opportunity to get their driver's licenses at an earlier age.

For their article, researchers from Johns Hopkins University's school of public health in Baltimore reviewed nine previously published studies that assessed the effectiveness of driver education programs for high school students.

The Johns Hopkins study looks at data from studies published between 1978 and 1990. The researchers for those studies did not compare driver education courses offered by schools and those offered by businesses.

In one study of nine districts that eliminated driver education programs and nine that kept driver instruction, researchers found that districts that had cut the programs reported a 27 percent decline in automobile crashes per 100 16- and 17-year-olds. Comparatively, districts that maintained the programs saw virtually no change.

That report also found a 57 percent drop in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who received a license in those districts that terminated the programs, compared with 9 percent in those districts that kept them.

"We're not saying that driver's ed courses are harmful," Jon S. Vernick, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins' school of public health and one of the study's authors, said in an interview.

"They are good at teaching the rules of the road," he said. But the courses contribute to earlier licensure for people who are under age 21 and are among the riskiest drivers on the road, he noted.

The report's implications weigh the heaviest on state policymakers, he suggested. States "should be thinking of other ways besides driver's ed courses to improve the motor-vehicle safety of young drivers," Mr. Vernick said.

Many schools, to save money, no longer offer driver education. Other schools have taken the classes out of the regular curriculum and offer them after school or in the summer. ("Driver-Education Programs Hit Fiscal Potholes," June 12, 1991.)

Graduated Learning

One of the authors' recommendations is that states implement graduated driver-licensing programs. Such programs require novice drivers to progress through different stages before obtaining an unrestricted license.

Currently, 26 states have graduated licensing. The American Automobile Association hopes to have such policies in all 50 states by the end of next year, according to Mitch Fuqua, a spokesman for the Heathrow, Fla.-based group.

"This report validates what we've been saying all along," Mr. Fuqua said. "Driver's ed is just one small component of what is needed to prepare teens to drive."

Parents need to be more involved with teaching their children to drive, he said, and teenagers need more driving time on the road under adult supervision.

In 1996 alone, 6,300 teenagers were killed in the United States and another 600,000 were injured in automobile crashes. Slightly more than 60,000 teenagers died in motor-vehicle accidents between 1986 and 1996.

"This is an indication that something needs to be done," Mr. Fuqua said. Otherwise, he added, "we're going to see fatality rates continue to increase."

Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sometimes works collaboratively with the AAA, also agree that teenagers need other means--besides driver education--to become skilled, safe drivers.

The U.S Department of Transportation agency is taking steps to help states improve driver education by crafting national standards that states can use as a model.

Officials at the agency say they plan to continue pushing for graduated driver-licensing programs.

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Page 3

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