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Behind The Wheel Driver Education Can Prevent Car Crashes, Injuries, And Moving Violation

For just over three years, Jim Snelling has been teaching car control techniques in a small, low key school in Orange County, California. Jim is a true believer, swimming against the current of the safety establishment, demonstrating that skill improvement can help drivers avoid crashes.

Prevention is wildly more effective than repair. In his one day school drivers are taught skid control/recovery and crash avoidance strategies in low speed parking lot settings. There are two students to one instructor.

Jim subsequently tracks students through the California DMV and compares their driving records with California averages. His data is immature, with about 42 months of records and a mean age of 21 years. Younger drivers (16 to 24) evidence a 95% reduction in crash frequency, and receive 81% fewer moving vehicle citations than the control average. Slightly older adults (25 to 35) have 88% fewer crashes and 79% fewer moving citations. Yes, there is inevitable recruitment and selection bias in these numbers, but these are powerful effects. We were surprised at the magnitude of crash reduction, and the not-necessarily-expected reduction in moving violations- largely speeding tickets.

This effort is politically at odds with the auto safety mainstream. Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) contends that "There is just no evidence that education makes any difference. The most important thing is immaturity. You can give teenagers all the skills and experience and they're still going to go out and do dumb things."

A major effect of graduated licensing programs is simply to keep teenagers out of cars when they are at risk. This does not teach skills per se, yet might complement any skill improvement.

All previous studies regard standard driver education, with classroom lectures, gory films, and a minimum of driving instructions. Public funding for driver education has all but disappeared following a 1974 DeKalb County (GA) study revealing that old style driver education has a modest (16%) and brief (6 month) protective effect before any measurable effect disappears.

The prevailing belief is that if we teach better driving skills to teenagers, we will simply embolden thrill seekers.

Steve Thompson, a veteran auto journalist, noted an unusual number of women at Bill Scott's teenage driver course and was so bold to ask: "Why?" He notes a shift from two decades ago where the predominant motive was a father trying to share his recreational enthusiasm with a son. The shift he recognized appears to be a word of mouth ("") of largely single mothers investing in the safety of their children. Schools like this involve a significant effort and expense today, and Steve was impressed.

Jim Snelling, and Bill Scott, and others have designed their schools with the best curriculum they can devise. There are striking differences between various schools in purpose and structure. Most other schools make no effort to collect outcome data. My hope is that with such striking follow-up data as above, we can stimulate such learning with insurance premium reductions proportional to any diminished risk to insurance companies. We have not yet reached Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point," but I remain optimistic. If I'm lucky my payoff will be far fewer injuries to treat at work.

Jim Snelling: Advanced Driving Dynamics
314 S. Smokeridge Terrace
Anaheim Hills, California 92807
714 974 4233

Bill Scott: BSR, Inc.
P O Box 190
Summit Point, West Virginia 25446


"Driver's Ed Gets Sideways" by Patrick Bedard
-Car & Driver, July 1999, pp. 93-98.