The Backwards IIHS

The NMA has never been shy about calling out the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for its agenda-driven “research,” shoddy methodology and reality-defying study results.

So, we were skeptical when we read this headline in the latest IIHS newsletter: “Offering skid avoidance course to teen drivers doesn’t improve safety.”

The article summarizes a Maryland study that analyzed the safety impact of a supplemental driving course aimed at helping teens avoid dangerous driving situations. Students who had completed basic driver’s training were offered the chance to take the supplemental course at no charge. Participating students worked individually with an instructor in a car that had been modified to allow them to experience low traction at slow speeds on dry pavement. Subsequent traffic citation and crash rates for course participants were compared with those for students who didn’t complete the course.

Students who completed the course had fewer moving violations and lower risk of police-reported crashes. However, the results were not statistically significant, due to a low sample size, and varied widely depending on the statistical methodology employed.

Nonetheless, lead study author, Charles Farmer, pronounced the training a failure:

“Few people were motivated to take this course, even when it was offered for free. 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.”

One wonders how Mr. Farmer could come to such a sweeping conclusion when he knew the results weren’t statistically significant. He appears to indict the training based on how few students volunteered for it, not on any safety impact (positive or negative) it provided. The fact that people didn’t sign up for the training says more about their motivation than about the quality of the training itself.

This last point ties into another dubious conclusion from the article: that driver’s education may make young drivers overconfident and therefore more likely to take risks. In this case, the IIHS implies that advanced training makes drivers less safe. This is of course preposterous. In reality, those who pursue advanced driver’s training are motivated to become better, and safer, drivers, not more reckless drivers.

The IIHS has long criticized formal driver’s education and public awareness campaigns as ineffective. In a 1997 article it stated:

Among the possible reasons for driver ed’s ineffectiveness, the report states, are that specific crash-reducing skills aren’t taught; not enough attention is paid to the importance of motivation in applying new skills or the overconfidence that may result from skills acquisition …

Read through that statement a couple of times and see if you can find any logic to it. The piece also mentioned “informal” driver’s training (whatever that is) as a preferable alternative to organized driver’s education but failed to provide any details.

A follow-up article in 2001 continued the critique but also called for more traffic laws and more traffic enforcement. It actually included a line that read “Education can be risky.” And that seems to be the point: We can’t rely on formalized driver’s education, especially advanced training, to make our roads safer; therefore, we must pass more laws and encourage ever more predatory traffic enforcement.

It’s a ridiculous argument, but intellectual honesty has never been an IIHS strong suit. If it were, the institute would stop supporting policies that have no positive impact on highway safety like red-light and speed cameras. Speaking of which, the next article in the current IIHS newsletter touts the success of speed cameras in Maryland (coincidentally the same state from which the skid avoidance study came.) The NMA and others easily debunked that analysis here.

Could driver’s education in the United States stand improvement? Absolutely. The NMA has always advocated for strong, experience-based driver’s education programs, including the use of simulators to replicate driving conditions that drivers-in-training may rarely encounter during the road time. We have also questioned the effectiveness of graduated driver’s licensing (GDL) programs (something the IIHS favors) that may actually prevent young drivers from getting the experience they need to handle a variety of hazardous driving situations.

Traffic safety experts know the importance of the three “E’s” of highway safety: Education, Engineering and Enforcement. We need more of the first and less of the last. As usual, the IIHS gets it backwards.

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