Sex education in public schools has been a contentious topic in America for decades. The debate generally comes down to whether or not students should be told about ways of maintaining their sexual health besides completely abstaining from sexual activity until marriage. This column is an attempt to take the basic arguments of the abstinence only machine and put them in a much less controversial setting, one which removes the stigma associated with sexual activity and puts them a much more banal context. Hopefully, by doing so I will expose just how ridiculous the line of reasoning proponents of abstinence-only sex education use truly is. So, without further prefacing, I give you the argument for drivers’ education.
As President Obama makes himself at home in the White House and begins to address the myriad problems facing the country in this dark hour, I sincerely hope that he takes a moment to reflect on the plight of our nation’s children and their safety. Young people today are faced with an increasingly dangerous world where threats to their health come from all directions at all times. Drugs, violence, disease and terrorism know no age boundaries. Obama must therefore make a vital stand to ensure the safety of America’s youth: He must end the mixed messages our children receive from their high school instructors. On the one hand, they’re told to wait. On the other, they’re told ways to improve safety. I’m talking, of course, about driving.
Drivers’ education, or “drivers’ ed” as it is commonly called, is a serious problem in this country’s education system, and the current curriculum of so-called “comprehensive” drivers’ education classes is not acceptable on any grounds. Comprehensive drivers’ education classes do nothing more than entice students into driving. By giving teens the idea that limiting the risks of driving is even possible, these classes unwittingly cause teens to believe they are immune to the risks entirely. I hope to point out some of the most blatant errors in the classes, but more importantly, debase the entire rationale for comprehensive drivers’ education in public schools while making the case for its removal and replacement.
Now, I’m not opposed to the act of driving; only to underage driving and the programs that endorse it. When done by the right people in the proper context, driving is very useful and can even be therapeutic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself stressed, indoors and restless and known that all I needed was a good drive to get my spirits up and clear my head. So although I will provide some rather disturbing statistics, which may seem to implicate driving itself as unacceptably dangerous, do not walk away with that impression. My goal is to explain why the current trend in drivers’ education is threatening America, not why driving itself is.
The details of comprehensive drivers’ education deserve some attention. Comprehensive drivers’ education is anything but; it is a complete misnomer, as there is nothing comprehensive about it. Students are briefly told that refraining from driving is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid accidents, and are then explicitly instructed on the nature and use of various supposed safety measures. The average comprehensive drivers’ education curriculum uses only 4 percent of its material to advise students not to drive, whereas 28 percent is devoted to the use of various methods of accident prevention. This dichotomy is notorious for producing confusion in the minds of our nation’s youth.
At the tender ages of 15, 16 and 17, children are not capable of understanding complex messages from adults about such a multifaceted issue. To compensate, instructors often oversimplify. For example, I attended a drivers’ education class in Northern California where the instructor attempted to reduce the issue down to these three sentences: “Driving carries inherent, serious and potentially deadly risks that can only be avoided entirely by refraining from driving. However, driving also has important emotional, physical and social benefits, and the risks involved can be mitigated if addressed properly. Should you decide to begin driving, it is important that you understand the ways you can protect yourself before, during and after the fact.” After such a negligent overview she went on in detail about numerous accident prevention methods. Again, this is not an acceptable message to send our children. First they’re told that driving is potentially deadly, and that the only way to avoid this risk is to refrain from it. But then they’re told that it’s possible to lower the risk involved, as though that makes the inherent risks acceptable. What are our children supposed to think? That driving is dangerous or safe? That it’s only deadly under specific circumstances or that it is possible to avoid the risks altogether? These questions remain unanswered in the minds of our teens.
Children are, after all, just children, and they need adults to make sense of the world for them. And, when it comes to driving, this means that they need “directive education.” As Dr. James Datsun from Focus On the Family Van states in his drivers’ education “Myth and Truth” FAQ, “Children need education that points them to a specific outcome. If drivers’ education is taught in a seat belt-plus-forbearance format, the message is mixed and nondirective. Students are left confused as to the best choice.” Unless children are given a clear message, they walk away with nothing.
Or do they? What if they walk away with something far more sinister than nothing? What if they walk away with lies, with misinformation, with a dangerous disregard for the perilous world around them? Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common, and brings me to the central tool of comprehensive drivers’ education programs: The seat belt.
Seat belt, safety belt, buckle buddy, lap wrap … call it what you will, but seat belts have been hailed as the saving grace of safe driving since their widespread distribution in the 1960s. Seat belts are not something you can just slap on and expect a consequence-free driving experience from. There are still very real risks to be dealt with, but seat belts blur those risks and give a false sense of security. And seat belts make driving more dangerous precisely because of this false sense of security. Numerous studies have been published which demonstrate the correlation between seat belt use and accident frequency. For example, economist Sam Peltzman found in a 1975 study that seat belts produce both more accidents and an increase in the number of deaths per accident. Accidents involving seat belts are likely to be more severe because drivers pay less attention, drive faster and are more likely to be negligent than they otherwise would. In other words, drivers adjust their behavior when seat belts are involved.
Adjusting behavior due to changes in perceived risk is known as risk compensation. Risk compensation is something we all do naturally. If something appears more dangerous to us, we approach it more cautiously. If something seems safer, we’re more likely to take risks. So when someone who has been told that seat belts make driving safer buckles up, he or she is more likely to be reckless. This recklessness becomes even more dangerous when you consider the lies being fed to our children regarding seat belts.
Students are led to believe that seat belts are 100 percent effective. However, the bolts that hold seat belts in place are only strength tested to 224 kilonewtons. The force of two 3,100-pound vehicles (such as two Toyota Camrys) colliding head on at 65 mph is 3,150 kilonewtons. That’s 12 times more forceful than the test threshold. Does this constitute safety? I would think not. Furthermore, there are a number of criminal law suits across the nation against seat belt makers alleging faulty seat belts and seat belt parts.
But that’s not all. Seat belts also lose effectiveness when exposed to heat and UV radiation from the sun. They can slip off or even break under the kinds of pressures associated with normal driving. What’s worse, inexperienced drivers often have no idea that their seat belts have malfunctioned and continue revving away until it’s too late. Given all this, can we really trust seat belts to protect our children from themselves?
Now, the seat belt is obviously the cornerstone of the comprehensive drivers’ education program, but there are a number of other “safety” devices children learn about in the classroom. Perhaps the most taken for granted and most primitive of all is the emergency brake. Activating the e-brake, or “pulling up,” is the simplest and least effective form of accident prevention, yet students are told about it nonetheless. And while we’re on the topic of brakes, anti-lock brakes are now standard on almost all vehicles. Anti-lock brakes shorten stopping distance, thus encouraging the driver to follow more closely. Often too closely. These kinds of brakes are notorious for causing risk compensation, as are ubiquitous and seemingly helpful items such as windshield wipers, horns, brights and tire chains. These devices are supposed to make the driver safer in adverse conditions, but all they do is encourage the driver to thrust themselves into those conditions in the first place. Combined with the tendency of teenagers to feel invincible, these safety measures produce a deadly cocktail of cold steel and youthful bravado. The aforementioned safety devices are all meant to prevent accidents, but what if an accident occurs anyway? (And as we have seen, this is actually more likely.) Well, there are two especially important post-accident safety instruments that children learn about. The first of these reactive measures is the air bag. Air bags are becoming a more and more prevalent form of protection, and younger and younger children are being exposed to them. In fact, if children are too young, air bags can be dangerous to them and even kill them. It is for this reason that air bags now come with menacing yellow and black warning labels and disclaimers. Does this sound like something meant for safety?
Air bags are interesting in that they only help prevent bodily harm as a result of a serious accident, but they do not protect against accidents at all. This fact is not made clear to some students, and they walk away believing that air bags offer complete protection against all kinds of accidents.
The second post accident safety measure is perhaps the most alarming example of all. Students are taught that if a serious accident occurs and all else fails, they could be saved by a monstrous procedure involving the “Jaws of Life.” Aside from causing massive emotional trauma that results in elevated rates of depression and suicide, the procedure is nothing more than an enabling mechanism that prevents young people from fully appreciating the consequences of their actions.
Ultimately, comprehensive drivers’ education, by being confusing and contradictory and by presenting false and misleading information to our young ones, is both wrong-headed and terribly destructive. But what alternative is there? How else are we supposed to introduce our young ones to the topic of driving in a manner conducive to safety and social harmony? The answer, my friends, is directive drivers’ education.
Directive drivers’ education focuses on the fact that refraining from driving is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent accidents. But before I can make the argument for directive drivers’ education, I need to explain more about accidents themselves. There are of course many kinds of accidents, and there are two ways to view an accident: the circumstances of the accident, and the outcome of the accident. The outcome-based view describes three kinds of accidents: those that cause property damage, those that cause injury, and those that cause death. There are many circumstances under which those outcomes can occur, and some of them will be addressed here.
The most common kind of accidents are fender benders, and can usually be fixed up by a trip to the mechanic. These visits can burn the pocket book a bit, which is why they are usually considered to be property damage accidents. However, refurbished vehicles never work the same as they did before an accident, no matter how small, and we all know how difficult it is to sell a salvage title. After all, who wants damaged goods?
The second most common type of accidents are rear-enders. These have many consequences, but are generally classified as injury accidents due to the fact that they commonly cause back pain for the person being rear-ended. This class of accidents are almost always the fault of the driver who does the rear-ending, and often result in chronic damages that never go away; though the impact of the damages may be intermittent and not always manifest.
But the most dangerous kind of accidents are pileups. What makes these so menacing is the sheer number of drivers involved; often, a teen is unable to know even the names (let alone the driving history) of all those mired in the tangled mass of rear-enders, head-ons and T-bones. Tragically, this scenario often results in death. That said, all types of accidents are hazardous and pose myriad consequences. And teens, despite their feelings of impunity, can be involved in every single kind. Indeed, they are often the cause.
Young people are implicated specifically as the most dangerous drivers in the U.S. by safety advocacy groups from across the country, and the outcry is not unwarranted. Young drivers are the least experienced, yet they are also the most recent graduates of drivers’ education programs. If these programs are so good, why are teens so much more dangerous? The fact is that our children carry the lies and falsehoods fed to them in comprehensive drivers’ education classes directly onto the road, where they become the most dangerous drivers in the country. Need proof? How about this: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 16 percent, or just under one million, of the accidents in 2006 were caused by 16- to 20-year-olds. This age group constitutes only 6.3 percent of the driving population. Think about that. This means that a teen is three times more likely to have an accident than older drivers. Furthermore, teens are four times more likely to cause an accident than any other age group per mile driven. Finally, if we consider the demographics of this country, we see something even more startling. On the basis of current population trends, there will be 23 percent more 16- to 20-year-olds in 2010 than there were in 2006.
Nationally, 5.9 million accidents occurred across all age groups in 2006. As a result of those 6 million accidents, even with all the supposed safety measures young drivers use, there are 2.6 million driving injuries every year. In 2006, drivers aged 16 to 20 caused 231,000 injury accidents, which resulted in over 13.3 percent of the total number of injuries. Of course, not all accidents are mere fender benders; some result in death. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people ages two to 34. A fatal accident occurs on average every 12 minutes and an injury accident every 12 seconds. That means by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence at least two people will have been injured, and at the end of this letter another two will be dead. In 2006, 117 people died each day in fatal accidents, totaling 42,708 people killed.
Not surprisingly, a disproportionate amount of this death toll is due to young drivers. The NHTSA reported that people between the ages of 16 and 20 caused 7,286 fatal accidents in 2006. Again, that age group represents only 6.3 percent of active drivers. This means that only 6.3 percent of the people on the road are responsible for 17 percent of all roadway deaths. Talk about red asphalt.
But what of the seat belt you might ask? Shouldn’t our old friend the lap wrap be preventing all this carnage? In a word, no. Of the 42,708 deaths resulting from an accident in 2006, a full 45 percent of those killed were wearing a seat belt.
Have you had enough or shall I continue?
The fact is that driving is the most dangerous activity our children will engage in on any given day, and the only way to prevent them from taking that risk is to instruct them on the value of refraining from driving altogether until they are old enough, mature enough and can take responsibility for their actions.
Drivers’ education of any kind is useful only in its capacity to prevent our children from hurting themselves. Given that driving is so dangerous, it is clear that the best way to prevent our children from being harmed is to teach them not to drive. It is for this reason that I do not advocate the removal of all drivers’ education classes. Indeed, the existence of a properly structured directive drivers’ education program is perhaps the most important safety measure we as a society can put in place. That said, the new classes must be dramatically changed from their current form. Programs such as STRANS (Safety in Transportation between Regional And National Sites) have defined the kind of directive drivers’ education curriculum that we should adopt as having the following eight points; the curriculum:
1. Has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological and physical gains to be realized by refraining from driving activity;
2. Teaches total restraint from driving activity as the expected standard for all school-age children;
3. Teaches that the complete rejection of driving activity is the only certain way to avoid the associated material loss, bodily harm and other damage;
4. Teaches that a mutually consensual transportation arrangement between driver and passenger is the expected standard of adult driving activity;
5. Teaches that driving activity outside of adulthood is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
6. Teaches that driving is likely to have harmful consequences for passengers, the passenger’s parents and society;
7. Teaches young people how to reject offers to drive and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to such offers; and
8. Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in driving activity.
These eight points would be the building blocks of any new curricula. Many companies have already published direction-based education programs predicated upon these eight points. Some examples include “Choosing the Best Road,” a product of Choosing the Best, “Me, My World, My Car” by Teen-Aid, and “Why kNOw” by Why kNOw Education. The future of drivers’ education, nay, the nation itself, depends on the adoption of these new curricula.
Directive drivers’ education emphasizes that driving in and of itself is not a bad thing. As I stated earlier, though dangerous to young people and those who do not respect it, driving is part of our everyday lives and can be a highly valuable activity. Indeed, America is defined worldwide by our driving. But the serious threat that underage driving poses should cause us to reconsider our approach. Underage driving not only endangers the lives of those who engage in it, but also those who share the road with them. It is my hope that the needless loss of life and endangerment of innocents is put to an end, and I see directive drivers’ education as the means to that end.
My dear readers, I have laid before you the case for the replacement of current drivers’ education programs and for the implementation of a new standard. I have done this because our nation’s future is at stake, and because those who have come before us have done the same. Indeed, we are not the first generation to come face to face with a horrible threat to the future of our youth. The last threat of this magnitude came not in the form of steering wheels and high octane, but as pills, joints and needles. The task was indeed daunting. But the historic triumph of President Reagan’s campaign to end teenage substance abuse in the 1980s demonstrates that a “Just Say No” approach to underage driving would be equally successful.
President Obama’s recent decision to allow mechanics which utilize the Jaws of Life to receive federal aid is regrettable, and emblematic of the powers we are up against. However, the removal of federal subsidies for faulty seat belts and reactionary air bags from the stimulus package is equally emblematic of our promise. So with any luck, and with a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead, we will succeed in this endeavor. Our nation’s youth, indeed, the whole of the country, depends on our success.
K.C. CODY would like to thank The Aggie for relieving him of his word limit and any readers who made it this far. If you’d rather his word limit be re-imposed, let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.