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How is Abstinence-Only Sex Education Like South Africa’s Driving Exam?

South Africa has had, for the last dozen years, what may be the world’s most difficult driver’s license exam. It’s an exercise in extremely defensive driving. Test examiners take off points for, among other things, failure to check all mirrors every seven seconds. An applicant can fail instantly if he lets his car roll backwards even an inch when stopping or starting, or simply if his test examiner hasn’t met his daily failure quota. In a recent Times article, Michael Wines writes that passing the test requires an applicant to “imagine that he is driving a live claymore mine under assault by guerillas in bumper cars.”

So South Africa must have the safest roads in the world, right? Well, no. The fatality rate per mile is five times higher than that of the United States, and rising fast. Why? Because the test is so hard, and the accompanying bureaucratic process so byzantine, that it acts as a strong disincentive for South Africans to get proper driver training. Many people simply drive without a license or buy one off the black market. So the unintended consequences of South Africa’s rigorous licensing program seem pretty plain: there is more bad driving as a result.

Turn now to the United States, where the Federal Government has spent upwards of $1 billion over the last decade on abstinence-only sex education. (Call it defensive dating.) The idea is that not teaching students about contraception, safe sex, etc., will lead to better outcomes, including less unwanted pregnancies and fewer sexually transmitted diseases.

Except … it turns out that teenagers are circumventing their abstinence education and having sex anyway. Studies have repeatedly shown that abstinence-only students have almost the same number of sexual partners, and have sex almost as early, as students who receive traditional sex ed. In fact, abstinence-only programs may actually increase the risk of STDs and unintentional teen pregnancies. That’s because those abstinence-only students who do have sex tend to be less likely to use protection.

That’s one of the reasons why New York State recently canceled its abstinence-only program, passing up millions of dollars in Federal aid. Congress nevertheless appears ready to continue funding for similar programs. Maybe abstinence-only would work better if the classes were administered by one of those stern South African driving examiners.