Does school-based driver education improve student safety?
School-based driver education programs have a long and ill-famed history in Australia. They began to grow popular and spread widely in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s and soon began to feature in Australia, although typically not within the actual schools, but as courses that school-based learners and newly-licensed drivers could attend.
By the 1970s, driver education programs had grown in popularity when research in the United States cast doubt on their effectiveness. The landmark “DeKalb county study” at first seemed to show that students of the driver education program in DeKalb county schools went on to gain a licence and had fewer crashes than students who did not attend the program. However, an incentive or “bonus” for participating in the program was that graduates could get their licence six months earlier than non-participants. When this extra “exposure” time was taken into account, those participants actually had a higher risk of crash.
Some research was also done in Australia (Victoria) around the same time to see if there was any benefit of having programs at a specialist facility – which were costly to build and maintain. The results found no improvements over teaching students on-the-road in “real world” traffic. This led to a withdrawal of Government funding and support for the facilities.
Despite these findings, driver education programs have remained popular in Australia and are often sought out by young people and their parents. Almost every decade since those early studies, reviews have been conducted to see if the situation has changed, but there has still been limited support to suggest driver education has any impact on crashes. Unfortunately, the lack of clearly findings is mostly due to a lack of good quality research, so it is still unclear whether any recent advances have improved outcomes.
Support for driver education
Many road safety practitioners question why driver education is expected to reduce crashes. Behaviour change is what is really needed – not just increased awareness, knowledge and understanding, which tends to be the focus of driver education. Sometimes just knowing the risks is not enough to prevent the risk behaviour – think about smoking and binge drinking.
This does not mean that driver education is unimportant, however. Driver education works well in teaching learners about road rules, how to manage their car in traffic and how to pass the driving tests for licensure – which most learners do on the first attempt.
Further, many new programs have tried to take on board the criticisms and recommendations of the reviews. This includes going beyond a focus on knowledge to a focus on changing behaviour. These programs teach strategies and tips on how to avoid risks or deal with pressure to take risks, such as “safe partying” programs that also teach young people to look out for their friends and make sure a designated driver stays sober. This also includes “whole-of-community” programs, where sectors of the whole community engage in the program’s delivery and demonstrate that everyone shares responsibility for safety on the roads, with learners sharing part of that responsibility.
These “best practice” programs have recently been shown to reduce the likelihood of having traffic violations in a large, good quality study in the United States. An Australian study of over 20,000 new drivers in New South Wales has also found that those who participated in one example of such a program in Year 10 or 11 went on to have fewer crashes early on their provisional licence compared to others in the study. Volunteer bias for participating in the program was unlikely as students attended as part of a regular school day. It was not possible to know however whether those who had completed the program and then had crashes were not well-represented in the study. Therefore, there is still a need for high quality research to demonstrate whether there truly are crash reduction benefits.
A great concern in relation to driver education programs is regarding courses at specialty facilities that teach learners how to manage high speeds or get them into a skid and teach them how to correct it. While this “makes senses” as many young driver crashes involve loss of control, there have been very strong studies demonstrating that this approach is more likely to increase crash risk. When drivers feel confident in managing certain situations, they will no longer avoid those situations or just won’t slow down enough as they feel in control of the situation. This seems to be a particular concern for newly-licensed young drivers – if they don’t feel comfortable they will driver slower and take extra care and this is really what is needed. These “advanced skills” course can actually counter this caution and instead exposure the young driver to a higher crash risk.
Another great concern is regarding programs that will still give a time discount to licensing – like the early DeKalb study. Despite repeated research showing that this greatly increases crash risk, over 20 states in the United States still allow young people to get their licence early in they take a driver education program. There is no known program that could come close to protecting these young people from crashes enough to allow such a time discount. Thankfully this has been a rare approach in Australia.
School-based driver education can be very successful in increasing knowledge of road rules and driving risks, as well as teaching how to manage a car in traffic and how to pass the driving tests. There is insufficient evidence, however, to support driver education programs as a means of reducing crash risk. There are new promising approaches, including whole-of-community programs that focus on teaching strategies to avoid risk behaviour, but more research is needed.
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