Driver's-ed schools can take MVA, parents and kids for a ride

August 11, 2002|By Susan Reimer

My fellow mothers and I are embarking on a new and highly lucrative enterprise.

We are all quitting our day jobs to start a driver's education school.

We think we have found the golden fleece -- and I do mean fleece -- and we have the state government to thank for it.

The state requires all new drivers to pass a driver's education course that includes 30 hours of classroom time and six hours of driving time.

But -- get this -- the state has so little oversight authority and so little staff to inspect these schools that we will be able to charge our captive market untold hundreds of dollars while providing their children just about anything in the way of driver's education.

And who's going to complain?

Certainly not the kids.

They'd sit through church every morning for two weeks if it meant they would be eligible to get that precious driver's license at the end.

And there won't be any complaints about quality from them. From their point of view, a good driver's ed class is one with their friends in it; a bad driver's ed class is one without their friends in it.

Certainly the parents won't complain.

They don't have a choice, either. This isn't soccer camp. Driver's ed is mandated by law. Send the kids to the nearest class to which a carpool can be arranged, and write the check. Whether it is $200 or $450 doesn't matter. You have to pay it because you have to pay it.

You can see the financial opportunities that a driver's education school presents. At least 60,000 kids apply for their driver's license every year in Maryland. Multiply that by a minimum of $250. Just open the doors and sign up as many as the fire marshal allows.

More, if you want. If anybody starts snooping around, toss a handful of kids out of the class and send them home with a note to their parents: "Sorry. Class full today. Come back next session."

What are the parents going to do? Complain to the Motor Vehicle Administration and risk shutting the school down? No way. Not before their kid has that ticket to drive. And then, who cares? It's over.

Besides, there are 200 driving schools in Maryland and only two full-time inspectors. It would take the state forever to chase down a complaint.

Years ago, driver's ed was handled in the high school classroom. But when the auto safety industry announced that it couldn't prove that driver's education actually made a difference in accident rates, the insurance companies backed off and so did the federal government. There went the money for the teachers and the vehicles, the curriculum and the insurance.

But some states, like Maryland, continue to require any new driver to take a driver's education course, and that's when the private sector moved in.

The Motor Vehicle Administration has made an effort to set standards for these schools and to enforce these standards, but many driving schools have fought this every step of the way. They respond to every new attempt at regulation and supervision with that tired old phrase, "Well, that just means we will have to charge more."

This from an industry with an estimated 40 percent profit margin.

To their credit, some counties in Maryland offer driver's education through the community college. Both the administration and the teaching of these courses appear to be credible and professional.

But my fellow mothers and I are simply going to rent a ratty storefront in a strip mall, hang out a sign, turn on the voicemail and go out to lunch. Let the money roll in because the state is furnishing us the customers.

Each summer, these driver's education horror stories -- chaotic administration, overbooked classes, wasted time, lousy facilities, no classroom supplies, poor instruction, long delays in scheduling driving time and general price gouging -- make their way to the dismayed Anne Ferro, head of Maryland's MVA.

"It may be time to revisit the value of mandatory driver's education because it is tough to ensure the quality we think parents should expect," she says. "When parents have a choice, they shop around for something that is worth their money."

But the biggest problem with mandatory driver's education may be that it leads us all to believe that our kids will know how to drive when they graduate. They won't.

Driver's ed teaches basic concepts and driving theory, but it is no substitute for practice -- time spent behind the wheel with an adult in the passenger seat.

Parents have a right to know if a driving school is doing a good job of teaching this conceptual part of driving, and the best way is to be there for the first class and plan to drop in again.

Parents should be as vigilant about the quality of their child's driving instruction as they would be about the instruction at a sports camp.

There is a reason why you won't find my fellow mothers and me running one of those.

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