Why do some research professionals continue to hold positions that result in avoiding a serious overhaul of, and investment into, educating new drivers? Education-testing young drivers warrants as much attention and investment as crash-testing new vehicles! Exploring how to teach and motivate teen drivers will result in knowledge that is likely more valuable to society and traffic safety than exploring the crush of a new vehicle!

Researchers Allan Williams and Susan Ferguson of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have weighed in once again on their position regarding driver education. Although they title their article "Driver’s Education Renaissance?", their comments reflect an old position that does not promote education; it promotes delaying and avoiding education. The premise of this position is kids who don’t drive won’t crash, and educating someone on how to do something will result in them doing it. Their commentary is posted at the Injury Prevention Online Web site. This article is a rebuttal to the position they put forward.

This author found no positive suggestions for improving driver education in the Williams and Ferguson commentary, yet research abounds on how people learn, and the body of knowledge on how it applies to driver education, although still largely ignored, continues to grow. Their specific, useful positive suggestions are limited to the agreed benefits of various elements of graduated driver experience models. But, because driver education results in kids driving, they also recommend that access to driver education be made less convenient by removing it from high schools.

Those who would define the agenda on teen driver educationshould be able to offer something more positive than to make driver education less convenient to the general public. This suggestion leads this author to believe they are at a loss on how to improve driver education, or as to what role it can provide in improving the learning experiences of young drivers.

Their commentary continues their public message that scarce public dollars will be wasted if spent on driver education. They disclose that a good driver education program results in more skilled drivers, but the context and underlying message is "skilled drivers are not necessarily safe drivers." Even so, the article also conveys the fact that efforts over the past couple decades to convince the public that education measures are useless has failed, and with that admission the article appears to divulge a concern that efforts to keep public dollars from being invested into driver education are at risk.

The Williams and Ferguson article appears to be part of a strategy, perhaps well intended, to counter the ongoing struggle to adequately fund and improve driver education—a counter stimulated by renewed interest of the public and Congress in driver education. The struggle that exists between some researchers and those who directly work with teens is a challenging conundrum. Most parents and teachers believe education is important to help teens learn safe driving behaviors, but some of those who review literature and research at arms length from young, aspiring drivers believe teens should not be taught to do something that might result in their harm.

Would Williams or Ferguson consider delaying young minds from being taught the basics of the scientific method? Any teacher can tell you that young minds will error in their methods, analysis and conclusions until they learn, through experience, to master the skill. Yet, society knows that young minds should be taught. Teachers, therefore, work patiently, over time, to establish a foundation of knowledge in the scientific method and provide expanding experience, helping students overcome errors and produce more accurate conclusions in more complex scientific inquiries. Society demands this be done because society understands the value of the educational process.

The facts cited by Williams and Ferguson overlook new emerging reports coming out of Washington and Oregon that indicate teens whose learning experience includes a standards-based, state-approved driver education program are safer drivers than those who do not take a state-approved driver education program. In addition, what is known by research is not the only useful body of knowledge relating to teen drivers. The writers report "86 percent" of the public "considered driver education courses ‘very important’ in training new drivers to drive safely." Those who are closer to the real world have ways of understanding things that frustrate the analytical and necessarily myopic world of research and empiricism. We must respect what is unscientifically "known" by the public. In fact, intuitive knowledge and hunches are an important seedbed of hypotheses that eventually become scientific knowledge.

Champions and guardians of empirical knowledge are invaluable contributors to public discussion and policy development. However, I learned years ago that while the advice of accountants and researches is very important, unless those analyzing the data understand the heartbeat of the business, their advice may not result in the hoped for outcome. Why is that? It is because the world of science is a discovery process and what has been empirically explored and documented represents only the tiniest piece of the universe of knowledge awaiting exploration. Despite our great and wonderful advances, what is unknown is far greater than what is known, and what is thought to be known is often, at best, only partially known.

It is not unusual for researchers to warn that a particular effort represents a focus for which there is no scientifically proven value, only to find through additional research that there is evidence of its value. Examples of this abound.

Delaying license may reduce crashes for the younger teens, but what does it do for the older teens who have yet to learn to drive, and how does that help rural states that insist on young teens being able to drive. At some point the would-be driver must learn to drive and begin the path of acquiring experience. Society has invested too little effort and resources into improving methods of initial instruction. The public intuitively knows that education has to play a part as certainly as the staff at the IIHS know that young minds must be taught the scientific method.

Perhaps the driver education agenda should be defined by experts in education, learning development and human behavior who have explored the nuances of the human mind and know the heartbeat of the education and training process. Perhaps its time to expand the dialogue to folks who have suggestions other than Williams’ and Ferguson’s suggestion to avoid or delay the task, and who are willing to forge ahead and improve a driver education system that has yet to embrace present education and training knowledge and technologies. Perhaps experts at crashing cars and calculating the costs of crashes for insurance companies are not the experts that can best advance solutions to the driver education challenges.

The bottom line is that experience without skilled and knowledgeable instruction will lead to reinforcement and establishment of poor and illegal driving behaviors and habits. Society can’t expect the teen driver to drive safely if they do not know how. A quality driver education and training experience is the foundation for safe driving behavior. That foundation needs to be true and sound so that subsequent safe-driver initiatives can build upon that foundation of knowledge and skill, including public policies that encourage improved driving norms for all drivers.

In the words of Russell W. Davenport, "Progress in every age results only from the fact that there are some men and women who refuse to believe that what they know to be right cannot be done."

For more on the suggestions of this author (David Huff) and other experts who believe something positive can be done, visit the Driver Education Forum sponsored by the National Transportation Safety Board at http://www.ntsb.gov/Events/symp_driver_ed/symp_driver_ed.htm


David C. Huff