March 01, 1999 2 min read

Crash Course: It’s conventional wisdom turned on its head. A new report says that teenagers who take driver education are no less likely to get into an accident than their peers who have no formal training. In fact, the study concludes that driver education increases the risk of crashes because it allows teenagers to get driver’s licenses earlier than they otherwise would. In the report, researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s school of public health review nine studies that assessed the effectiveness of high school driver education programs. One of those studies found that nine school districts that eliminated driver ed saw a 27 percent drop in automobile accidents among 16- and 17-year-olds; nine districts that maintained their programs saw no real change. That study also noted a 57 percent decline in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who received licenses in the districts that cut the programs, compared with a 9 percent decline in the other districts. “We’re not saying that driver ed courses are harmful,” says Jon Vernick, a principal author of the Hopkins study, which appeared in the January issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “They are good at teaching the rules of the road.” The problem, he contends, is that the courses enable some of the riskiest drivers to get licenses--the under-21 set. State policymakers, Vernick suggests, “should be thinking of other ways besides driver ed courses to improve the motor vehicle safety of young drivers.” One possible answer: graduated licensing programs where novice drivers clear various skill checkpoints before obtaining an unrestricted license. Currently, 26 states require this kind of licensing, and the American Automobile Association hopes to have such policies in all 50 states by the end of next year. “This report validates what we’ve been saying all along,” says Mitch Fuqua, a AAA spokesman. “Driver ed is just one small component of what is needed to prepare teens to drive.”

TV And Drinking: Teenagers who watch lots of television are more likely to drink alcohol than peers who are less glued to the tube, according to a report published in the November issue of Pediatrics. Researchers at Stanford University followed 1,533 9th graders at six California public high schools over an 18-month period, monitoring their drinking as well as the time they logged in front of the television and computer. They found that each hour per day that youngsters watched music videos raised by 31 percent the chance that they would drink alcohol at some point during the study. Each hour of general TV-viewing increased that chance by 9 percent. Meanwhile, every hour in a day that kids watched a videotaped movie decreased the likelihood that they would drink by 11 percent. Finally, playing video and computer games had no effect on students’ propensity to drink. Why the different results? One reason, the researchers say, is that music-video shows and general television programming feature frequent beer commercials and more images of people drinking than do movies and games. In a statement accompanying the study, the American Academy of Pediatrics charged that the croaking frogs in Budweiser beer commercials are as appealing to young people as the Joe Camel cartoon character featured in smoking ads. “The more beer advertising children are exposed to on television,” the AAP said, “the more often they recognize slogans and brands and the more positive they feel about drinking.”

--Karen L. Abercrombie and Jessica Portner