What in the World is Driver Education?

At the recent ADTSEA Conference for driver educators, I made the statement to several of my friends and colleagues that “it is time to get rid of driver education.” Then, before they could take a swing at my head, I backed up and began to explain what I meant.


For the teachers I was talking to who spent upwards of a thousand dollars and four days of their lives to attend the national conference, driver education is more than a way to make a living; it is a passion for helping provide teens with a lifelong set of safe driving skills. But, these dedicated teachers are sometimes mixed in with others who don’t have the same passion.


There is such a wide variation of competency levels among driver education teachers and instructors. You know of friends –– and I’m sure you cringe as I do –– who tell you about some of the driver ed stories their teens’ recount. “The driver ed teacher fell asleep in the car. My son had to wake him up.” “My instructor didn’t help me, she just kept telling me to park again and again until I got it right. After seven attempts without success, she said ‘I don’t know what more to do to help you.’ I gave up.” “My driver ed teacher had us take turns reading aloud from the textbook when we weren’t watching movies.” Stories like these and other factors have created an industry that gets little respect. Yes, Driver Education is the Rodney Dangerfield of education. Yet those of us striving for, and conducting, quality driver education programs know that there is no subject matter in the high school curriculum that has a higher enduring value to one’s life, or to maintaining the quality of life, than Driver Education. And so it should have the utmost respect.


Now I’ll get to the other part of what puts driver ed into an arena that makes it appear to have little value to the general population. There is no standard for what a teen should be able to perform at the end of the driver education program other than being able to pass the licensing exam. The skills one needs to pass a driver licensing exam are based upon knowing rudimentary motor vehicle laws and regulations and being able to demonstrate basic (very basic) vehicle manipulative skills. The major objective for a teen who comes into a driver ed program is to be able to “go through the hoops to get my license.” The teen has little concern for learning “space management” skills because they are not evaluated to any extent during the licensing exam. So, how much does what is being evaluated on a licensing exam affect the quality of driver education? Answer: A lot!


In 1970, the United States had the lowest number of traffic deaths in the world at 30 fatalities per 100,000 population while the United Kingdom had 38 and Japan had 95 fatalities per 100,000 population. However, although safer vehicles, safety belts, airbags, and faster medical response time lowered fatality rates worldwide, in 2010 the United States was ranked higher in fatalities than 60 other countries with a 12.3 fatality rate. The UK dropped from 38 to 3.6 fatalities and Japan dropped from 95 to 3.9 fatalities per 100,000 population. The major changes both the UK and Japan made were to increase the skill level requirements before licensing. The UK’s licensing exam emphasizes applicants’ perceptual abilities to detect a potential crash situation. And, Japan places emphasis on applicants demonstrating step-by-step driving procedures, which requires a tedious and lengthy learning process. The cost of receiving the training to get a license in the UK and Japan will range anywhere from the equivalent of $2000 to $5000 dollars. And, it isn’t uncommon for some to take years to learn how to pass the licensing exam. Conversely, there have been no significant changes in the licensing exam within the United States. The cost for those taking driver ed in the US ranges from $300 to $800, and there is a greater number of licensing applicants in the US who take no driver education.


It is difficult for those driving schools that operate a quality driver education program and pay instructors a professional wage to complete with the driving school across the street that is paying their undertrained instructors wages that are equal to, or less than, what one earns working at a fast food restaurant. A parent calls your school. The first question: “How much is your driver education program?” Parents are not going to ask “What will you teach my daughter to provide her with life-enduring crash avoidance skills?” Parents don’t know the differences among programs or what should be learned! Until the driver licensing exams begin evaluating skills that are relative, we need to promote the value of our programs.


Here is where we get rid of the term “driver education.” The parent calls asking for pricing. You state: “We conduct more than a driver education program, we conduct a Driver Wellness Coaching Program that teaches teens how to stay alive.” “But your program is twice as costly as your competitor across the street.” “Well ma’am, if your son needed a life-saving operation, would you send him to a surgeon that charged half-price, or would you want the best? Our Driver Wellness Coaching Program is the best!” Then, you need to deliver the goods!


About the author: Frederik Mottola, Professor Emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University and Executive Director of the National Institute for Driver Behavior, has, for the past 50 years, researched and developed techniques to help drivers learn good habits for space-management. A scientist, inventor, educator, and author, he has designed successful crash-reducing programs for corporations, municipalities, police, military, emergency vehicle operators, and traffic safety educators on national and international levels.

4 thoughts on “What in the World is Driver Education?

  1. Hi Fred – I think the “space management” concept needs and deserves the same educational campaign that the government uses for topics such as ‘dui’ and ‘seat belt usage’. It should have a school component like those topics do and be – understood – as the cornerstone to road use by all ‘ road users ‘( see N.Y.Times article about increase in pedestrian death 8/6). Any driving school that can’t adequately teach this topic isn’t a driving school. – Kurt

  2. Fred, Let’s take it to a higher level, set the higher standards and require retesting every 5 or 10 years. We need to reach the older generation to do a paradigm shift. We also need to require drivers that have had suspensions take a Space management program before reinstatement.

  3. Fred, I agree, with your entire article. I know driving instructors who are literally hired off the street and trained minimally to only serve the function of mass producing minimal quality drivers on our roads. While the parents are pleased with the “cheap” cost of the driving school, they NEVER open their eyes and realize that they were swindled. Their greatest possessions, their children have been placed at risk by their parents misconceptions of driving school programs and the desire to save a buck. I also agree that all driving programs are not created equal. Parents need to do more homework and realize that WHAT YOU PAY FOR IS WHAT YOU GET. Keep up the good work! I look forward to reading more of your blogs in the future.

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