Does Driver's Ed. Lead to More Car Crashes?

The conclusion couldn’t be any starker:

Indiana lawmakers say the state’s driver education program isn’t working, citing a fractured system administered by three separate agencies and statistics that put the program’s usefulness in doubt.

Yes, it’s a bit of a political issue …

Public affairs director Sarah Meyer of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles told a group of state lawmakers last week that a study of current drivers under 18 showed those who took driver’s education had nearly four times the crashes that those who didn’t take the classes had.


But hey, there are statistics to back it up:

Nearly 5 percent of the 51,000 teens who took driver’s education had one or more reported accidents, compared with 1 percent of the 71,932 drivers without formal driver training.

Is driver’s ed. a menace to society? At least one politician asked the obvious question:

“Why do we even offer driver’s education?” asked Rep. Phil Hinkle, R-Indianapolis, after hearing the statistics.

Indeed, lots of government-run programs don’t produce the intended result. And the safety value of driver’s education has been challenged before. But is it really possible that sitting in a driver’s-ed. class makes you four times more dangerous?

Maybe the courses give young drivers false confidence that makes them more dangerous? Or maybe the instruction is really bad?

Or maybe there’s a selection bias at work here, whereby the drivers who take driver’s ed. (whether by choice or not) have different characteristics than the drivers who don’t.

Or maybe, more believably (to me at least), the statistics above obscure one salient fact: drivers who take a driver’s ed. course are allowed to drive at a younger age than drivers who haven’t taken a course.

There might be a lot of reasons to critique a driver’s-ed. program, but one of them should not be that you are shocked – shocked! – that turning more young drivers loose on the roads may result in more accidents.

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COMMENTS: 33


  1. Larry Karp says:

    Or….. Maybe students who have taken Drivers Education understand the importance of reporting an accident and the consequences of not reporting. In addition, they are probably more prone to carry proper insurance (parents have more $$ to protect). Maybe some racial / income bias as well??? Thoughts??

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  2. Greg says:

    Let’s all agree going forward to only do studies that truly compare apples to apples. With the only change being what we want to study. If you can’t do that then why bother with the study.

    Remember half of all statistics are made up.

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  3. Nate C. says:

    There could be a location bias. For example, young drivers who live in rural areas may be less likely than young drivers in urban areas to be involved in an accident. This may occur regardless of whether the driver has taken driver’s education. Can we add a variable titled “population of area in which accident occurred” to the equation? There are a few other proxies – I suppose the overall accident rate, including adults, might be useful as well.

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  4. Lawrence Miller says:

    There is a section in “Nurture Shock” about the failure of Drivers’ Ed. In the studies the authors cite, it seems to make very little difference to safety, and they argue that it is because Drivers’ Ed teaches driving technique effectively, but that accidents are caused, by and large, by poor decisions; driving while tired or distracted, showing off for friends, etc.

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  5. PaulD says:

    Perhaps NOT taking the class correlates with having an engaged parent who is willing to do the training himself/herself, and the presence of a parent (and the absence of classmates) in the car is a better way to learn how to drive safely.

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  6. Calvin Graham says:

    And while on the subject of comparing like with like, what’s the comparrison in distance travelled per year? This could be like the other driving classic that ‘women make safer drivers’ which overlooks the fact that, on the whole, male drivers tend to drive a vast number more miles every year

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  7. DG says:

    Dubner writes “Or maybe there’s a selection bias at work here…” Bingo – we have a winner. As one of my colleagues likes to say, endogeneity is where you find it…

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  8. none says:

    But following the link provided shows that in Indiana there is only 3 months difference between the age at which one can obtain a license with successful completion of a driver education program versus without.

    I find it easy to believe that 16-year-olds are, on average, less skilled or careful drivers than 21-year-olds or 40-year-olds, but can there really be *that much* difference between 16 years 6 months and 16 years 9 months?

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  9. Think and thrive. Don't drink and drive. says:

    I think your penultimate paragraph has it right.

    My son has had his learning permit (driver must accompany him) for two years and will be a more mature person when he chooses to get tested, likely without the need for driver’s ed, although that will get us lower insurance rates.

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  10. Chris says:

    Agree, in addition to the possible explanations you posit, you first need to question the validity of the statistics themselves. Hopefully they are valid, but …

    Also, location is really important. Rural drivers have much lower accident frequency (because there’s less traffic). Do urban kids take drivers’ ed. more often?

    There are other factors effecting frequency as well. You need to control for these factors before you can draw conclusions.

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  11. GLK says:

    Driver’s Ed is a dumb class that teaches nothing of what truly needs to be known about piloting a two ton mass down the roadway. Better our children go to a Performance Driving School at a road course. At least there they’ll learn something about how their vehicle works, how the law of physics apply, and how human instinct works against them ala target fixation and such. Americans have been brainwashed to believe speed kills so we keep focusing on making cars and roads safer while simultaneously ignoring driver skill. A car as docile (read: wimpy) as a Toyota Prius suddenly turns into a death trap mainly because the driver has not the skill to deal with the slightest perceived malfunction. Our society puts way too much emphasis on technological externalities while blithely ignoring, or otherwise having no faith in, improving the human factor.

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  12. emw says:

    I have to agree with GLK’s assertion that the class teaches little of value. My daughter took the class recently. She was bored. When she told me what they did in class, there was little of real value. The focus seemed to be, “As long as your rear end is in the seat the required number of hours, you’re good to go.”

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  13. L. F. File says:

    Are the insurance companies really so dim as to give premium deductions for something that increases their exposure? What statistics are they basing their determinations on?

    And when they say “…51,000 teens who took driver’s education…” are they only including those that took classes before they had a license? Many of the “teens” may have taken classes after being required to due to a traffic infraction or accident.

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  14. E Olson says:

    Post #5 shares my suspicion. If a teenager’s only instruction is driver’s ed, and there is no involved parent the result could be a driver with minimum skills. How much road time does a student get when there are many other students to share that time behind the wheel?

    Makes me wonder about another question: why would insurance companies lower your rates for attenending drivers ed?

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  15. mike says:

    I think Indiana licenses drivers at a somewhat earlier age if they have taken a driver’s education, at least at one time I’m reasonably certain that this was the case. While I am certainly willing to accept the idea that driver’s ed is worse than useless, I do wonder if this might be a complicating factor.

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  16. Gary says:

    There is a great difference between driver education courses and driver training. It is well-understood that most people learn better by doing than by observing alone. Let’s see a proper study that counts accidents of various types among the 2 x 2 combination of course attendance and training classes.

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  17. mike says:

    An addendum: indeed, those taking a driver’s ed course may get their license a minimum of 3 months earlier than those who don’t. (I just checked.) And those who take driver’s ed most likely do it to get the license earlier. So there are more opportunities available for the driver’s ed graduate to have an accident by age 18 than for the non-driver’s ed graduate. Plus there may be systematic differences between those who take driver’s ed in terms of attitude, risk aversion, etc.

    The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the folks who produced the study, have no known research capacity.

    Bottom line: there is an excellent chance that the study is pure garbage. If insurance companies stop giving a discount for graduates of recognized driver’s ed programs, then I would be more inclined to believe the results.

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  18. BSK says:

    I am also skeptical of the “reported accident” statistic. Could rural teens (or their parents) be more likely to settle-up with neighbors privately after a crash? In a larger city where you don’t know everyone including your neighbors, getting the police involved could be far more common.

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  19. Josh says:

    I know when I was 16 I got into 4 really minor accidents (I think the cars were moving under 10mph in all four), only one of them was reported (the rest were privately settled since the damages were all under $500). Since then I have not been in one.

    I did take drivers ed, but the reason for the accidents was just general irresponsibility and immaturity, nothing to do with drivers ed (which was admittedly worthless).

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  20. Thomas Paine says:

    My daughter took the after school drivers class in South Florida, and afterwards I found out our auto insurance company did not recognize the class for a discount. The insurance company required watching a DVD they supplied and signing a pledge. I also thought the school driving class was a waste after watching them drive a course in a parking lot at 3 mph and never going out on the open road.

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  21. Justin says:

    I work as an actuary for a mid sized P&C company and recently did an analysis of drivers training courses and how it affects accident frequency and severity. Using a GLM that pulls out other rating characteristics of the driver (such as age, miles driven, usage, etc.), a drivers training course has no effect on claim costs, positive or negative.

    @LF File: A couple reasons insurance companies give a discount that is not justified: Required by the state, pressure from agents (agents love being able to offer discounts), and retention (if you can undercharge a customer to get them to buy your insurance, you may be able to overcharge for them later and earn more profit. Some companies are notorious for this)

    @ Gary: As far as I know, neither drivers ed or drivers training help with claim costs. States have different requirements for their DE/DT, and none seem to be helpful in reducing accident frequency/severity.

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  22. MartinZ says:

    The stats imply that drivers education actually makes you a worse driver than those without.

    My gut feeling is that drivers ed teaches a ‘by the book’ application of skills, that are for the most part inappropriate for the reality of most situations. Reinforcing the inappropriate skills makes you less likely to ‘bide bye’ the actual customs of the road and adopt the variances of the ‘by the book’ methodology that is utilized in reality.

    I think you’re further off having a complete stranger that commutes everyday and drives on long trips show you the ropes.

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  23. AaronS says:

    This article caused me to think back on my own Driver’s Ed training. It was taught by one of the coaches–apparently as a way to keep him fully employed during non-P.E. hours.

    But what occurred to me was that I ALREADY KNEW HOW TO DRIVE. I mean, I didn’t just get in the car and know nothing.

    However, to this day, two things have stuck with me:

    1) The graphic videos of the results of drinking or reckless driving; and

    2) On my real drive through the city with my teacher, he had to hit the brakes for me because while car traffic was clear, I had not seen the pedestrian who was almost in front of the car. I have tried to carefully remember that since that day 30 years ago.

    I’ve never been in a bad accident, and even the minor one or two wasn’t my fault. I have received two or three speeding tickets in the ensuring years, but not for doing 70 mph in a 25 mph zone…but more akin to doing 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. Not the best, I know, but still, better than it could have been.

    The point, however, is that my dad was teaching me to drive long before Driver’s Ed was. The course was worthwhile in what it added to my driving ability, but if I had not had my dad’s guiding hand, the course would have been largely worthless in terms of actually knowing how to drive.

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  24. Johnny says:

    As has been said, I don’t buy any minor age difference as a factor. Also there should be a lot more information in the statistics, and how the state rules work (I am only familiar with VA).

    Definitely something else going on; my vote is home training. My parents had been teaching me carefully for almost a year, the school course of 5 driving days was very boring. My friend was my partner, however, and he had never been behind the wheel and it was terrifying. He passed, and was slightly less terrifying at the end of the week. One would assume his parents were entirely hands off, thinking the driving course would take care of everything…

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  25. JThompson says:

    I live in Indiana. Those commenting how urban and rural driving may make the difference makes me smile. Indiana has urban areas, thank you very much.

    To the point of the article – the selection that I am aware of is money. Drivers education is a program that costs hundreds of dollars. All of the poorer kids, including myself, could not afford to take this.

    Those of us who could not afford this extra education could not afford cars until we were early adults. We drove the family cars less often or not at all to save insurance costs. We were also less likely to own anything other than a beater if we did have a car as a teenager, only the well off kids got sport vehicles.

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  26. Kris says:

    Kids in Indiana get a full drivers’ license at 16 and a half? Damn. I live in British Columbia, Canada, and we have to have a learner’s permit for an entire year (eligible to apply at 16) before we can apply for a novice stage that lasts another two years where we can only drive with one other passenger in the car and with a blood alcohol level of 0.0. Then, if we’re completely accident-free after three whole years, we can apply for a road test and get a ‘real’ drivers’ license.

    Also, drivers’ education is not offered in our public schools (at least not to my knowledge), and with an approved private drivers’ ed class, we’re only eligible for a six-month reduction on the novice stage. So it’s still two and a half years between applying for a permit and obtaining a full license, assuming that the driver causes zero accidents (which would set back the clock).

    Consequently, in my age group (18-22) there are very few drivers – not just car owners, but people holding a license. Driving is not really a rite of passage here as it is in the US (or so I hear). Of my six roommates, I’m the only one with any form of license… it’s just not worth applying for most students. There’s incentives at work for you.

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  27. Gene says:

    I have taught 2 of my kids to drive (working on 3rd) thru a home AAA course. They have had no accidents or tickets and overall are pretty safe drivers. We often talk when I am driving about what other cars/people are doing (or not doing) and the proper ways to drive.

    I think this has more impact than any teacher or video could ever have. Parents need to make time to teach kids life skills. Whether it’s driving, balancing a checkbook, etc, it’s always better if you can get/do real life training instead of classroom simulations…

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  28. JTG says:

    Based on my own personal experience, I have to agree with MartinZ.

    I took driver’s ed because it is required in my state to get a license. I learned all of the “rules of the road” and still recall and apply them on a regular basis. This makes me a very bad driver.

    If I were a smarter driver, then I would take the advice of a friend, “just drive like you don’t care if someone hits you” while traveling though Boston before the Big Dig was completed. It is much more realistic approach.

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  29. Home Building says:

    I’ve worked on both the ‘school side’ and the ‘hospital side.’ It’s clear enough that suburban and rural kids are turned loose with a car long before they have enough (adult supervised) experience at vehicle operation. Also, never discount the fact that urban kids negotiate traffic on foot and on bicycles–suburban and rural kids, dramatically less so.

    If you never have responsiblity to operate a lawn mower or bicycle at age 12, why would a couple of months of class prepare you for skilled, defensive driving?

    My own son received his certificate and both his mother and I were horrified at his lack of skill. We immediately told him that he had “Three more months with mom and dad,” and then we’d see.

    This really is a story about parental abdication.

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  30. John Berger says:

    I see this issue from an entirely different perspective.

    The “elephant in the room” is driver incompetence!

    I am a certified professional high performance/racing instructor. I teach ‘adults’, oft times with expensive, high powered cars how to control their $100,000 baby under any and all circumstances. That means I climb into the passenger seat of a Porsche 911 Turbo with someone I’ve never met while we navigate a race track the student has never seen at speeds up to 150mph.

    Classic driver’s ed doesn’t teach the necessary car control skills to avoid a crash or correct a situation that’s going wrong. It teaches how to get a license. Thirty hours of classroom lecture and driving on the road gently for a handful of hours is completely insufficient.

    To see how absurd this is apply it to the following hypothetical dialogue between you and your commercial airline pilot as you board the plane:

    “Welcome Mr. Jones, glad you’ll be flying with us today.”
    “I’m looking forward to it. By the way, how much training do you have?”
    “Well the airport we’re landing at is forecasting thunderstorms, heavy wind shear and crosswinds around 40 knots. But don’t worry. I’ve been in class for thirty hours, and I’ve got 8 hours flying the plane.”
    Now your response can either be:
    a) “Great! I’ll find my seat.” OR
    b) “Uh, I don’t think I’ll be flying with you today.”

    Most of the people I teach believe themselves to be among the world’s finest drivers. Virtually all of them are wrong! The average driver’s skills are so appalling as to border on the non-existent. My job is to make them better.

    Consider that most 16 year olds are taught by their parents who are among the appallingly bad majority referenced above. So what this model guarantees is that bad habits will be transferred from one generation to the next.

    Yet, here in the U.S., we believe this process, which kills 40,000 people a year, 5,000 of them teens, an unbridled success. This is INSANITY! We are outraged as a society that over 3,000 of our young men and women have lost their lives in a decade of war in the Middle East. Where is our outrage over the 400,000 that have died behind the wheel?

    Look at it this way: the number of our soldiers who die in a year is surpassed by our highway deaths in three days.

    Driving a car is comprised of three basic components, the car, the tires, and the driver. Two have improved dramatically over the last generation; one hasn’t. Guess which?

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  31. Austin says:

    The “younger age” argument sounds pretty bogus. The age difference is only 3 months, not something significant like 2 years. Does 90 days of age really make a driver who takes a driver’s education course less mature and able to handle an automobile than someone a little older who didn’t take the course? I think not.

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  32. wefewgfer says:

    ” So the bear wipes his butt with the rabbit

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  33. erica parker says:

    I’m 20 and I took drivers ed and I learned nothing at all about the written test I was showed videos and told stories by my instructor after driving around every other day with my instructor. I regret making my parents pay 100s of dollars and I still don’t have my license.

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