How American Driver's Ed Has Failed: Instead of Reporting It, Let's Prevent ItS

This is the introduction to what's intended to be a recurring series that will pick up in the new year pending further research.

If you've been hanging out on Jalopnik/OppositeLock for any length of time, eventually you're going to see such stories as Teen Takes to Twitter After Mowing Down Grandma and Asshat Tweets "2 Drunk 2 Care" Before Causing Horrific Fatal Accident. Admittedly, these type of headlines aren't exactly the most popular on the FP/Jalopnik proper. I'll readily admit that I'm one of them. And you know what? You should feel this way too. A quick visit to Wikipedia reveals that just over 34,000 people died in car accidents last year. That's down from the previous year but still way too many. The CDC says motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of youth fatalities. Or if nothing else this is what Google says when you search for "teen kills pedestrian." Maybe it's media sensationalism since "teen kills someone while driving" seems to be a very grabbing headline, but it still points to something being a problem.

The act of driving itself isn't the problem, as I (or for that matter, you) should be living proof of that. Safe attentive drivers are inherently safe drivers even when going fast.

Is distracted driving to blame? Yes, no, maybe...can you repeat the question? (yeah, I couldn't resist that).

There's one school of thought that says that distracted driving, or at least driving while using a cell phone specifically, may be overblown. In which case, it isn't to blame.

The "maybe" concerns distracted driving as being a symptom, not a cause. Teens are looking down at their phones because to them, driving isn't an activity, it's something that happens to get them from point A to B and, consequently, inefficiently eating into time that could be used for other activities. So they rectify that by multitasking. In other words, it's not a distracted driving problem. It's not a phone attitude problem. It's a driving attitude problem.

Many teens may care about cars insofar they want something cool and maybe even something Jalop - but relatively few teens actually care to drive their cars safely and effectively. I submit to you this is because, simply, relatively few people even care to bother to teach them how to drive effectively in the first place.

The massive fail that is the American Drivers' Education System

Maybe things have changed since I took my test, but my driver's education consisted of the following:

- A week long lecture-style class (quite literally a class, as it was right at my high school given by my own teachers) that lasts about one hour each weekday taken the June before I turn 16. In my case, it meant a full year from the time I took this class until I was age-eligible to take the driver's license test.

- A manual (actually, more like a glorified pamphlet) that goes over prescribed driving procedure in a very "by the book" (i.e., useless) style.

- Taking the actual written test which consists of a very simple, multiple-choice test that is arguably designed to allow testers to pass rather than actually evaluate their worthiness as drivers.

- Taking the practical portion of the testing process, which consisted of 2 miserable hours in a Honda with my freakin' gym teacher telling me to "slow down and obey the speed limit" every time I attempted to blend into the flow of traffic.

- Within the one year between taking the lecture course and when I was age-eligible for taking the written and practical test, 40 hours of day instruction and 10 hours of night instruction to be administered and logged by a parent, of which beyond those two hour-based stipulations is pretty much "anything goes."

And that's it. That's all that was between me and a shiny laminated piece of posterboard that gave me legal permission to operate a 2-ton road-bound kamikazie missile. Oh, wait. There was also a $25 fee and proof of residency to actually get them to take a picture, print and laminate said piece of posterboard too.

And people wonder why there are so many stories about teens or young adults killing themselves or other people in auto-related accidents.

There's a not-so-old saying that goes: You reap what you stupid. If you treat the drivers' education process as a punishing formality that needs to end as soon as possible, with long gaps between the useless instruction and useless testing, you end up with smug assholes who feel that teen girls and young women shouldn't be allowed to drive on the road and are just plowing over people left and right, and they'll have the statistical data to back them up because nobody bothered to properly teach them how to drive in the first place, so no duh they'll kill themselves and other people.

Oh, and congratulations, you've also pretty much institutionalized a very blazé attitude about the activity of driving right into the very mechanisms of drivers' education and its processes.

How it's done elsewhere

I know that, anecdotally at least, drivers' education is taken much more seriously in Europe. I also know that it's also much more expensive. What I don't know is the exact process or how it differs, so I'll leave other people to comment on it.

What I do know is how at least some aspects of motorcycle riders' education works in parts of this country, a process I went through in order to earn the letter "M" on my piece of laminated posterboard. Now as I understand it the "normal" process isn't much different:

- Pay some sort of fee

- Take a written test that is more or less designed to allow testers to pass rather than evaluate them as actual riders

- Take some sort of practical exam

- Get your picture taken and get your license handed back, except now it has the letter "M" on it.

If it sounds like I have at best a vague recollection of that whole process, it's because I didn't go through any of that in the first place. I went a drastically different route. taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation-approved riders' safety course which consists of the following:

- Pay a much higher fee

- Go through one day that is nothing but lecture/video instruction - for three hours

- Go through another morning of lecture/video instruction for a few hours

- Get actual, detailed, demonstrated instruction on motorcycle riding for a few hours

- Actually practice and get evaluated on that same motorcycle instruction on an actual motorcycle for a few hours, not being permitted to move on until the motorcycle instructor clears you to advance

- Repeat for one more day

- Take what is pretty much the DMV's lousy written test

- Take a practical test in which you are scored by several instructors and not permitted to advance in the test until you have demonstrated a sufficient score

- Go to the DMV with paperwork proving that you have satisfied the passing conditions of this MSF-approved riders' safety course where they wave their own requirements and print you a new license right away because you just busted your ass doing something infinitely harder and more challenging than whatever worthless crap they require.

Note that a key element is missing from the riders' safety course that the standard new drivers' practicum admittedly has a leg up on: 50 hours of observed instruction and practice prior to eligibility. Unfortunately, there are practical limitations to this (I've yet to meet a motorcycle instructor willing to put his or her neck out in order to ride bitch with a clueless newbie rider for one hour, let alone 50). But many would-be licensed riders take their own initiative and go out and buy a little 250cc bike or less and ride around the neighborhood on that. Yes, this is technically illegal but as long as you stick to the slower neighborhood roads the cops won't pull you over (don't quote me on this).

How to make it not fail

The takeaway from this is that the MSF-sponsored course, as short as it is, is far more rigorous than what the DMV can provide and I really feel has made me a better-skilled, better-alert rider. If there was, say, an equivalent to this for new drivers, perhaps they can become better drivers better attuned to the act of driving and less likely to plow into people as well.

As a matter of fact, there is.

The Fayette County Attorney's Driver Education Course located near Lexington, Kentucky has been somewhat of a media darling in the past year (covered by both MotorWeek and The Truth About Cars) and is more or less exactly like the type of instruction and training you'd get at an MSF-sponsored course applied to cage drivers. Like the MSF-sponsored course it's also a bit more expensive than just going through the DMV - which you need to do as a prerequisite anyway as the course only accepts already licensed drivers (ideally ones who just got theirs laminated).

And that's part of the problem right there. Fixing the horrendous state of drivers' education in this country is going to take a bit of resources. Resources that will be met with some resistance, as cities and counties are always in budget battles. And perhaps resistance from the public as well who perhaps feel that there are enough impediments to licensed driving as well. After all, it's a birthright - being able to drive at the age of 16 is almost automatically given. Perhaps this is even reflected in the "designed to pass" nature of the DMV's written test.

But in the meantime, younger drivers are ill-equipped to even care about driving, let alone perform the actual act. In later installments, I'll look into what can be done to change that, one small step at a time.