Image courtesy flickr creative commons, Harrison1978
Image courtesy flickr creative commons, Harrison1978

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By Rachel Herzog

Updated June 21, 2015

North Carolina teens could end up hitting the road with less driving knowledge under their seat belts, due to an amendment in the Senate budget.

On Tuesday, Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Spruce Pine) proposed a repeal to the requirement that North Carolina teens attend a driver’s education program that has been approved by the State Department of Public Instruction. An appropriations committee voted to add it into the Senate’s proposed budget.

Student Drivers, Image courtesy of Artotem, Flickr Creative Commons

Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, said he finds the proposal disappointing.

“By itself, [driver’s education] isn’t sufficient to help teach teens, but it is a very important first step,” he said. “It helps teens learn rules of the road and gives them some introduction with the guidance of a driving professional, and then the teens get turned over to parents to make sure they have lots of experience under their belts.”

Losing funds

Until 2011, high school students could enroll in driver’s education free of charge. That year, the General Assembly cut $5 million from the state’s $32 million fund for driver’s education programs. To compensate, legislators gave school districts the option of charging students a $45 fee to enroll, which school officials say led to a drop in enrollment.

In 2013, lawmakers raised the fee to $55. In 2014, the fee became $65, and the state decided that the program would no longer be funded by the Highway Fund, but by money available to local boards of education.

Now, without any funding from the state, students will have to pay $300 to $400 should they choose to enroll in a driver’s education class.

Organizations such as Raleigh’s Jordan Driving School are urging people to call legislators to protest this loss of funding.

The alternative

The amendment requires teens to complete 85 hours of supervised driving practice, up from the current requirement of 60. However, Goodwin said there is no research showing that 15 more hours makes a difference.

[pullquote_right]Like what you read on NC Health News? Get notifications of new stories to your Facebook newsfeed – “like” us today![/pullquote_right]No other state has repealed driver’s education, but some have proposed systems where parents can let their children opt out of the class.

Texas, for instance, implemented a program in 1997 known as parent-taught driver’s education. According to a report compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2007, crash rates were proportionally higher among parent-taught drivers than they were among drivers who completed commercial or public school driver’s education programs.

However, Goodwin noted that these studies were not controlled and that there could be other factors in play, such as common characteristics between families who opted out.

On the other hand, Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said driver’s education isn’t as effective as commonly thought.

“Driver education can be very useful in teaching teenagers basic driving skills,” he said. “However, it hasn’t been shown to make teens safer drivers. Teens who go through driver ed aren’t less likely to crash than teens who haven’t taken it. There’s been a lot of research on driver ed over the years, and studies have not shown a safety benefit.”

Rader said that rather than debating driver’s education, North Carolina could focus on improving its graduated licensing program. Small changes such as raising the learner’s permit or licensing ages by six months would each lead to 7 percent reductions in fatal crashes, he said.

If the Senate budget becomes law, new drivers in North Carolina would still have to pass an exam with written and on-road components. The state’s graduated licensing system, which requires 16-year-olds to spend several months with a provisional license and imposes restrictions such as not being able to drive at night or with multiple passengers, will remain in place as well.

The Senate budget gained preliminary approval Wednesday afternoon and a final vote is expected Thursday. The budget then goes back to the House for concurrence, but the two chambers’ budgets are far apart, and Capitol watchers expect it could be weeks before any final budget reaches Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

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