When new drivers are ready to get on the road, but a pandemic has pressed pause on learning to drive
One of the most widely anticipated rights of passage for young adults is getting a driver’s licence. It symbolizes the transition from a young person to a young adult and brings with it an irreplaceable sense of accomplishment and independence. But what happens when a global pandemic interrupts the delivery of driver training in the classroom and on the road, and road tests are suspended?
This is a tough time for all those teens who are looking forward to getting their licence, and parents who are anticipating fewer parent-taxi requests. We understand the disappointment shared jointly by you and your teen. You have worked hard to fulfill the hours of practice, coaching, supervising and driver training to prepare teens for the road and ensure they comply with graduated driver licencing (GDL) requirements.
Governments and licensing authorities across North America are working equally hard to find alternatives to facilitate the safe reinstatement of licensing services during this challenging time. As they explore alternatives to help teens get safely on the road, there are some steps parents can take to reinforce safe driving habits of teens and prepare them for the reinstatement of driver training programs and road tests.
Impacts of COVID-19 on driver education and licence testing
Government responses to COVID-19 across North America have had major and varied impacts on public and private driver education schools. The implications of physical distancing directives and stay-at-home orders for the delivery of traditional classroom and behind-the-wheel training are substantial. Driver educators are working with local and provincial/state agencies, teens, and their parents to reduce contact and save lives by temporarily shutting down or taking precautionary measures such as offering online programs, virtual classrooms and distance learning platforms. Some of those jurisdictions that did not previously permit online driver education programs as a substitute for classroom instruction are moving to amend legislation or are considering bills or executive orders to do so.
Moreover, road test appointments are suspended indefinitely at many driver licensing offices. This is because safe alternatives to address this issue are, frankly, in short supply. To reduce backlog and maintain a contactless approach, the Georgia Governor initially issued an executive order for road test waivers. They subsequently updated it to allow any 16-year-old with a learner’s permit to get a state driver’s licence after passing a modified road test on a private property road course with a parent in the vehicle and the driver examiner giving instructions and monitoring the test drive from outside of the vehicle. While a strategy primarily designed to reduce the backlog of teens waiting to take the road test to get a provisional driver license may appear to have some intuitive appeal in principle, it raises concerns with road safety stakeholders, like me. Research shows teen drivers have a crash risk 2 to 3 times the risk of drivers 20 years and older, and persons most often killed and injured in teen driver crashes are other road users. So, appeal aside, certainly waiving the road test, and perhaps even permitting teens to drive solo after passing a modified road test, has risks.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation opted for a slightly different strategy of waiving their road test for 16- and 17-year-olds, and deferring decision-making to parents who are obliged to spend no less than 30 hours in the car with their teen as part of driver licensing requirements. This puts the onus on parents instead of a qualified driving examiner to decide if their teenager is ready to drive. Again, while there may be an inherent attractiveness to these alternatives for fixing a difficult problem, the truth is that waiving road tests can be detrimental to road safety because teen drivers have the highest crash risk of any age group of drivers. During the first six months of licensure, young drivers are eight times (8x) more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than more experienced drivers. While parents would no doubt make a valiant effort to assess the skills of their teen driver, the fact remains they are not trained and qualified driver examiners. As such, this policy means at least some teens who would have failed the road test or required multiple attempts to pass it, may be placed in harm’s way, along with their passengers and other road users.
More positively, most American states and Canadian provinces are prudently choosing cautious approaches such as extending the working hours of driver licencing offices and increasing the daily number of road tests. They are also seeking to hire and train new driver examiners and find the financial resources to pay for overtime and new hires. Although this alternative to address the road test backlog may take longer to implement, teens and parents are encouraged to be patient because this emphasis puts safety first and is the most feasible solution to an otherwise impossible situation.
Driver education programs and driver licensing tests are important tools to protect teens as they learn to drive.
Most jurisdictions encourage and incentivize the completion of approved driver education programs because of the safety benefits. Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death for teenagers and these crashes are entirely preventable. Similarly, all jurisdictions in North America require young and new drivers to successfully pass a road test as administered by a qualified driver examiner before granting them a permit to drive. These practices are widely adopted because the latest research indicates teens completing a well-designed driver education program have 5-15% fewer collisions and more than 40% fewer violations. The reality is it’s dangerous out there for inexperienced teen drivers because they simply haven’t driven or lived long enough to fully develop the skills needed to identify and safely respond to hazards on the road. Hazard perception skills are so critical to safe driving that some places check these skills on the road test or require teens to pass hazard perception tests and the road test. The United Kingdom, for example, has had a hazard perception test in place for many years based on real-life video footage. The test is intended to check a young driver’s aptitude to identify, anticipate and respond to developing situations that require them to take some action, such as changing speed, lanes or direction. Some states in Australia, also have screen-based computer hazard perception tests.
Key factors contributing to teen driver crash risk include overconfidence, sensation-seeking, widespread sleep deprivation (see, not a reality just for overworked and overstressed parents/adults) and fatigue, peer pressure to engage in risky driving behaviours, and intentional risky driving behaviours, such as speeding, tailgating, and distracted driving. Driver education and driver licensing programs address these risk factors and reduce teen driver crashes.
It is noteworthy to mention these safety programs are light-years better than when I got my driver’s licence, more decades ago than I care to acknowledge here. Driver education combines classroom with behind-the-wheel training and provides a safe and controlled environment for teens to develop their driving skills to help pass the driver licence test and creates a foundation of lifelong road safety skills. In the United States, efforts have been underway to help improve driver education by encouraging states to adopt national administrative and delivery standards maintained and upgraded by the Association of National Stakeholders in Traffic Safety Education (ANSTSE). The National Standards were published to define the future of driver education and assist in improving the delivery of driver education programs nationally.
Road tests are another essential feature of driver licensing strategies and are designed to ensure people who drive on highways are competent drivers, well-versed in safe driving practices and traffic laws. The test sets the minimum standards for safe driving and provides a means to assess whether someone has achieved that standard and can now drive independently. Road tests have a direct influence on the training and practice of learner drivers because it motivates them to achieve and adhere to minimum competency standards through practice and/or training. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) has developed the Non-commercial Model Driver Testing System which assesses the novice driver’s understanding of driving and their ability to operate a motor vehicle. This driver testing system increases uniformity across states based on best practices, so states need to consider adopting AAMVAs’ successful model driver testing system.
Parents can make a difference reinforcing safe driving practices for their teens
Home-schooling children of varying ages while simultaneously trying to work from home has no doubt been an almost unmanageable task that has tested the limits of parents everywhere. I suspect more than a few parents have taken to their car, even just sitting parked in the garage, simply to escape the competing priorities and think without interruption for five whole minutes.
The next time you need a reprieve from the day-to-day challenges and pressures, ask your teen driver if they want to practice their driving. Parents are the essential co-pilot at the forefront of their teen’s experiences learning to drive and can help ensure licensing requirements for beginning teens are being fully met. Driver education is important, but a clear understanding of safe driving comes from hours of actual driving practice with a parent on all types of roads and under a variety of traffic and weather conditions, moving from simple (e.g., residential streets) to complex driving environments (e.g., rush hour, highways). Parents are the key to ensuring teen drivers gradually build the experience needed to reach the important milestone of taking the road test and getting their driver’s licence. Spending time in the car with your teen creates opportunities to talk about good choices and habits as well as reinforce the importance of safety; particularly when it comes to other teen passengers in the car and peer pressure to take risks.
There are also several resources available to encourage and support more parental involvement in helping their teen to become a safe driver so don’t worry; you are not in this alone. Parent and Teen Driving Handbooks or Guides are available online and at some driver licensing offices to provide parents and teens with a simple, easy-to-follow, practical plan on how to make practice driving sessions as productive as possible. (e.g., Manitoba Public Insurance). Driving logs are also available online or as mobile apps to track driving hours. These are especially helpful if your jurisdiction requires you to record dates and times of the number of supervised daytime and nighttime driving hours.
Parent seminars or orientation meetings are available in some jurisdictions. Such programs recognize parents are role models who can have positive or negative influences on their teen’s driving behaviours. Parental involvement has also taken a variety of forms both in coordination with driver education programs and independent of such programs. They typically cover topics ranging from the risks of driving and the major crash risk factors for novice teen drivers, GDL requirements, the parent’s role, cognitive development, hazard awareness and the parent-teen contract. Some states and driver education programs (e.g., in Idaho) also require or encourage a parent to accompany the teen and driver instructor on a driving lesson(s), and for the driving instructor to provide an end of course briefing to parents about their teen’s driving performance. ANSTSE has recently produced a report on the core elements of driver education/parent seminars.
The bottom line is parents play an integral role in their teen’s readiness to attempt the road test and solo driving…lives depend on it.
What does the future hold?
COVID-19 disruptions are being managed, and as restrictions are lifted, teens can get their provisional driver licence. With the supervision and guidance of parents, the teaching and training from a driver educator, and the assessment of skills by a driver examiner, teens will have the foundational tools to be on the path to becoming safe and responsible drivers rather than a tragic crash statistic on our highways.
Parents, driver educators, and driver examiners must work as a coordinated high-functioning team in the learning to drive process to ensure the safety of our teens. By working as a team, they can play an important role in shaping and influencing the safety attitudes and acquisition of driving skills among teens, as well as maximizing the amount and type of driving experiences. The rest is up to teen drivers as they embrace the freedom and mobility benefits a driver licence provides.
Three things parents can and should do:
- Take an active role and spend time in the car with your teen as they learn to drive.
- Be a good role model and practice the habits you want your teen to adopt.
- Be aware of nighttime & passenger restrictions which are two of the most effective features of GDL programs that reduce crash risk.
When it comes to safe driving, do as I say is simply not good enough. Research shows teen drivers are most likely to imitate the habits of their parents behind the wheel which they observe from a very young age.
Teens are smart and observant. The last thing we as parents want to experience is our own teen pointing out the inconsistency of what we say versus what we do, and then having to explain it.
Modelling safe behaviours every time you drive is essential to creating safe teen drivers, because, as we all know, practice makes perfect.
#MySafeRoadHome blog co-authors: Dan Mayhew is Senior Research Scientist and Advisor at TIRF, previously serving as Senior Vice President, with 40 years of experience in the traffic safety field. Over these four decades, he has conducted research, organized meetings/conferences, written technical reports and published articles, on a wide range of road safety issues, including senior drivers, young and novice drivers, driver education and training, driver licence testing, graduated driver licensing systems, and driver improvement. Dan was honoured in 2015 with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals (CARSP). Robyn Robertson, TIRF President & CEO and Karen Bowman, Director, Drop It And Drive®(DIAD) program, work collaboratively as co-authors, drawing from Robyn’s breadth of knowledge on topics alongside Karen’s blogging background and experience leading the DIAD program since 2010. Robyn is the author of TIRF’s knowledge translation model, is well-versed in implementation strategies and operational practices across several sectors. To date, the DIAD program has been delivered to over 60,000 youth and workers across North America.
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