The idea that more and better training could help reduce teen drivers' elevated crash rates continues to find adherents among safety advocates and policymakers. Unfortunately, studies have repeatedly found that driver education by itself does little to improve safety and, in some cases, makes young drivers more likely to take risks (see Status Report special issue: what works and what doesn't to improve highway safety, May 19, 2001, and "Driver education does not equal safer drivers," Jan. 11, 1997).
A new type of supplemental driving course that aims to help teenagers learn how to avoid dangerous driving situations also falls short of expectations, IIHS has found. Researchers found no clear evidence that skid avoidance and vehicle control training offered to teens in Maryland reduced crashes or violations.
Such supplemental driving courses have proliferated recently. They are offered at driving schools and also sometimes sponsored by automakers and promoted by highway safety organizations.
The version IIHS studied is offered by a driving school in Montgomery County, near Washington, D.C. Students work one-on-one with an instructor in a car that has been modified to allow them to experience reduced traction even at low speeds on a dry surface. They are taught that they can avoid skidding in reduced-traction situations if they slow down and refrain from erratic steering and hard braking.
For the study, the $225 course was offered free of charge to a random sample of all 16-17 year-olds who had completed the basic driver education course required for provisional licensure in Maryland at the same driving school between March 2011 and August 2012. Traffic citation and crash rates over the next two years were computed and compared with the students who weren't offered the skid avoidance training.
It's reasonable to suppose that such training would improve a young driver's ability to avoid risky situations, and at first glance, the Maryland course seemed to help. Those who completed it had fewer moving violations and a lower risk of police-reported crashes.
However, of the 1,481 students offered the free course, only 234, or 16 percent, completed it. When the researchers controlled for potential differences between those accepting and those declining the offer, they didn't find any clear evidence that the training was responsible for the better driving records of those taking the course.
Depending on which of three statistical methods was used, the estimated effect of the course varied widely. Results ranged from a 6 percent decrease in moving violations to a 150 percent increase, and from a 27 percent decrease in crashes to a 6 percent increase. None of the estimates was statistically significant.
"Few people were motivated to take this course, even when it was offered for free," says Charles Farmer, director of statistical services at IIHS and the study's lead author. "We don't know whether it would have shown clearer benefits if more people had accepted the offer. What is clear is that offering the course as an option, even for free, isn't an effective way to prevent large numbers of teen crashes."