Opinion

Senate making wrong turn on driver’s education

Asher Philips, 15, runs through a driving checklist alongside of instructor Curtis Wilson during the the behind-the-wheel portion of the driver's education program on Aug. 19, 2015 in Raleigh.
Asher Philips, 15, runs through a driving checklist alongside of instructor Curtis Wilson during the the behind-the-wheel portion of the driver's education program on Aug. 19, 2015 in Raleigh. News & Observer file photo

In what has become an almost annual effort, budget writers in the state Senate want to shift more of the cost of driver’s education courses to students and their families. The proposal would add to social inequity – and could lead to more unsafe drivers on the state’s roads.

Our legislature already has raised the stakes of traveling on our roads by not allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. With sparse transportation and the need to get to jobs, ferry children to activities or shop for necessities, many take the risk – legal and in terms of their and others’ safety – unlicensed. That means we have no way assuring familiarities with rules of the road or basic driving safety instruction.

The proposed changes in driver’s education funding could have similar consequences. If driver’s education is unaffordable for many youngsters, they may simply wait until they are 18 and do not need proof they have completed the driver’s ed course. That means bypassing the 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel the course provides.

The state picks up most of the cost – about $275 a student. Students or their parents pay up to $65 for the course.

Under the Senate proposal, families would pay the full $275 up front, although they could get reimbursed for some or all of the fee if the student passed the license exam on the first try. The thinking is that would encourage students to try harder to pass the exam, which many now fail.

The $275 sum may not seem like a lot to our senators, but in Durham where more than one in four children live in poverty, we have no doubt that will be a strain if not a barrier to many students. “What does this do for the family that doesn’t have $275 in disposable income,” Wake County school board member rhetorically asked The News & Observer’s T. Keung Hui. Clearly, the burden would fall disproportionately on those least able to pay.

Driver education is associated with a lower incidence of both crashes and convictions – reducing crashes by 4.3 percent and convictions by nearly 40 percent.

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Data, to be sure, are mixed on the merits of driver’s ed, and it is entirely possible our curriculum needs to be retooled. But the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says the instruction does make a difference. “Driver education is associated with a lower incidence of both crashes and convictions – reducing crashes by 4.3 percent and convictions by nearly 40 percent,” the foundation said in reporting on a 2014 study.

Or, as Connie Sessoms, executive director of the North Carolina Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association put it, “at the end of the day, the bottom line is we’re talking life and death.”

That seems like a strong argument for keeping driver’s education affordable for all high school students.

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