Skidding through the Learning Curve

“Practice makes perfect,” right? Well when it comes to driving, it may not equal perfection, but it certainly helps. In fact, inexperience is one of the major reasons that teenagers have crash rates that are roughly four times higher than those of other drivers.

To address this, the AAA Foundation has been talking a lot lately about the importance of giving teens ample opportunity to practice their driving. The message has become even more urgent due to recent Foundation research that found that teens are not getting as much supervised driving practice with their parents as previously assumed, and that when they do practice, it tends to be along familiar routes on sunny days, rather than under the range of conditions motorists will face throughout their driving careers.

That teens need more – and more varied – driving practice is undeniable. I’d like to take this opportunity, however, to touch on a somewhat related issue that remains a bit more controversial. Across the country, interest is growing in so-called “supplementary” training programs for new drivers, which generally pick up where traditional, basic driver education courses leave off and teach more advanced skills like skid recovery, evasive maneuvering, and threshold braking. The hope, of course, is that students will learn skills that they can use to prevent crashes and escape emergencies.

The fear, however – suggested by the limited research conducted to date – is that such advanced training may breed overconfidence in inexperienced drivers that is not matched by their true skill level. There is also a concern that young drivers will apply the techniques they learn for thrills when driving, which would negate any gains in safety.

A study prepared for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – which the AAA Foundation summarized and analyzed in a report released this week – found that most providers of these supplementary training programs indicate that improving safety is among their chief objectives, and is one of the most common reasons that parents enroll their teens. As we highlighted in our report, however, more research into the impact that these programs have on teen driving is sorely needed before any claims about their safety implications can be substantiated.

In the meantime, there is much that parents and guardians can be doing to give their teens the kinds of opportunities to practice what we know are beneficial. For example, as one of our recent reports on teen crashes found, young drivers improve relatively quickly at making left turns, entering roadways, and yielding properly, among other things, but they need practice to do so. The more experience they can get with such techniques while supervised, the less they may have to learn when they’re driving on their own.

With traffic crashes still the leading killer of American teens, it’s vital that we all do our part to keep young drivers safe on the road. When we’re teaching our teens how to drive, let’s be sure to help them steer safely through the learning curve without over-correcting.