New Md. drivers must take class

Anyone who wants a license will have to take drivers education

Not just for teens anymore

Courses typically cost $30 to $35 an hour, too high in some lawmakers' eyes

May 30, 1999|By Matthew L. Wald | Matthew L. Wald,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Beginning July 1, anyone applying for a license for the first time in Maryland will have to complete at least 30 hours of drivers' education in the classroom and 6 hours on the road. Maryland's drivers' ed requirement currently applies only to 16- and 17-year-olds as do the rules in most states that have requirements.

The new Maryland law is also bucking a national trend against drivers' ed. The number of high schools offering on-the-road training has fallen by about half since 1975, experts say. The new law will not restore those programs, but will send more young people to commercial training schools.

"The days of the drivers' education through the school systems are going the way of the dinosaur," said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. Nationwide, the programs have disappeared because of budget cuts, rising liability insurance bills and the end of car companies' onetime practice of giving cars to schools.

In states that require 16- and 17-year-olds to have drivers' education before they can be licensed, some young people decide to save the hundreds of dollars that a commercial school costs, and wait until they are 18 to get a license without any certification at all, if they can pass a road test. (That dodge was cited by lawmakers when they changed Maryland's law to require drivers' ed for any applicant who has never had a license, no matter his or her age.)

National movement

Despite the wane of public drivers' education, there is a national movement to cut the automotive death rate, the leading cause of death among teen-agers. One approach would be to require more than six hours of road time with a professional teacher. But with courses typically costing $30 or $35 an hour, few legislatures are willing to impose such financial burdens on taxpayers.

In Maryland, however, new drivers will soon face the prospect of spending several hundred dollars on courses. The Legislature did not authorize any financial aid for those who might have trouble coming up with the money.

Six hours of road time with a professional teacher clearly is not enough to train a teen-ager, who is likely also to get informal lessons from a parent or older relative. So what is the best way to use the six professional hours? Should it be the first six hours of a new driver's experience? Should it offer a chance to polish skills after hours of practice with a parent?

Not a 'bit of difference'

Use it either way, said Julie Rochman, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. Whether lessons from parents or professionals come first "won't make a bit of difference," she said.

In fact, the Insurance Institute's position, based on a study in the Atlanta suburbs 20 years ago, is that lessons from a professional teacher do not make much difference; young drivers who took drivers' ed were a bit less accident-prone for the first six months, the group found, but after that they fared no better than others their age. What makes a difference, Ms. Rochman said, is more experience.

"Parents are usually the best teachers," she said, adding that professional teachers were "really good for teaching basic vehicle handling skills" needed to pass the exam, including some with a low safety impact, like parallel parking. But parents "have the most at stake in seeing those kids survive."

Many experts agree that a problem with the professional schools is that they are geared to help students pass a test, not to drive safely. Few have advanced equipment or large expanses of traffic-free pavement for teaching students handling techniques, critics say, and the teachers get their jobs after only a few hours of instruction.

Legislatures could set higher standards but are generally not eager to push up the cost of a mandatory program.

Still, driving is a skill that can be taught by professionals, some experts insist. "Driving is the only area of human life where training as a way to improve behavior is denied," said Bob Green of the Skip Barber Driving School, which is based at the Lime Rock race track in Lakeville, Conn. "I really do believe people can learn."

Motivational speaker

Green's biggest impact is probably not as a one-on-one instructor who specializes in teaching teen-agers, but as a motivational speaker who lectures in high schools on staying alive. He went to 35 schools last year, he said, and addressed 4,000 students.

His lectures, different from what a parent is likely to give, stress that young drivers often crash because of inattention. "Teen-agers tend to crash on straightaways, like old folks in Florida," he said. "They just forget they are driving."

Another problem is overconfidence, he said. "Ninety-one percent think they have good or excellent control," he said. "I call this DOA delusions of adequacy." Nearly all will have accidents at some point.

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