Driver’s ed, not age, is key to road safety

THE LATEST FATAL car crash involving a newly minted teen driver has brought an understandable public outcry. Sunday’s deaths of Andrea Goncalves, 17, and her 10-year-old brother, Joshua, in Hopkinton add to a recent string of tragedies that have killed young drivers and their friends. Such stories weigh heavily on all parents as they hand the car keys over to their children.

But there is strong evidence the Massachusetts Legislature’s rush to fix the problem is speeding off in the wrong direction.

Legislative leaders are pushing a bill to move up the legal driving age from 16 1/2 to 17 1/2. Other legislation would extend the period of time teens must drive with the supervision of an adult before they can go solo or take their friends along.

The Legislature’s sudden activism has been criticized by those who argue that experience, not age, is the key factor for safe driving. But this debate ignores some harsh truths about two critical failures by the state — the woeful level of driver’s education in Massachusetts and evidence that the state’s driver’s exam is little more than a formality.

Last fall, journalism graduate students in Boston University’s Boston Statehouse Program conducted an examination of teen driving. They reviewed laws in other states, visited driving schools, interviewed driver’s ed experts around the nation, and polled hundreds of teen drivers in Walpole and Lowell.

Their findings, published in newspapers around the state, should give pause to those who think a year’s delay in giving teens a license will cure a multifaceted problem.

Among the findings:

Although the state requires that teens under 18 take driving classes before getting their licenses, it sets no specific curriculum standards. While a majority of other states require driving instructors take courses to prepare them to teach, Massachusetts instructors only need to have a safe driving record for certification.

Teens aren’t being tested consistently or thoroughly. Thirty-five percent of 459 high school seniors surveyed by the Statehouse Program said they were tested on seven or fewer of the 12 driving skills state police testers are suppose to check. Only 41 percent said they were tested on 10 or more of the points.

Fifty-six percent of the students said their driver’s test lasted 10 minutes or less. Only 15 percent said the test took over 20 minutes.

Twenty-one percent said their driving school was either ”fair” or ”poor.” Only 24 percent rated their driving school as ”excellent.”

Although there is no question that instructors at many of the state’s 215 driving schools take their responsibilities seriously, there is no mechanism to screen the bad from the good. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the bad.

A visit to one busy metro area school found some students asleep during class while others maintained consciousness by text-messaging friends or reading magazines. Teens at other schools — and concerned driving instructors — confirm this was not an anomaly. Some schools, they say, are assembly lines that fill the required 30 hours of instruction with 30-year-old safety videos and rote recitation of the Registry’s rules-of-the-road.

Fixing driver’s ed and cracking down on the testing system are essential steps forward, but other efforts are required. The Legislature should act on proposals that mandate more supervised experience behind the wheel.

National data suggest that teens become safer drivers if their first year behind the wheel is limited and supervised. There is no evidence, however, that having teens cool their heels until they are 17 will magically make them better, more mature drivers.

Also lost in the rush for a quick fix is the hard truth that parents must bear more responsibility. Many of the past year’s fatal accidents involve recently licensed teens who have violated state law by driving after the midnight curfew for under-18 drivers or chauffeuring passengers under 18 within six months of getting a license.

Making parents culpable for such actions with stiff civil or even criminal penalties should be part of the legislative debate. Such tough love for parents should not be dismissed as more governmental intrusion into the family. A harsh fine pales in comparison to the life sentence of grief faced by the parent of a dead teen.

Fred Bayles is director of Boston University’s Boston Statehouse Program.