New Drivers


(Originally published in Automotive Testing and Technology International, Summer 2020)

It comes as a surprise to many foreign visitors to the US that we have 14 and 15 year-olds operating motor vehicles of all age, condition, size and performance on our public roads. Generally speaking, in most states our rules require a licensed, 18-year-old or older adult to be in the vehicle with them until they are 16, but this really is of no consequence when an emergency situation is encountered.  Truer words have never been written than Francis Scott Key ending the first verse of our national anthem with …….and the Home of the Brave.

Brave indeed are the driver’s education instructors and parents who willingly climb into a vehicle with their 14 or 15-year-old chauffeur and moments later are travelling 70mph down the nearest interstate highway.  Driving at night?  In the rain? In the snow?  No problem, Mom, I’ve got this…  Until they don’t.  Statistics show drivers under the age of 18 are approximately 50% more likely to get into an accident than older drivers.  But why is this?

It is not new news traditional driver’s education programs and licensing test requirements in the US are sorely lacking.  The oversight for these programs is left to the individual states with little to no federal government involvement or, more importantly, no significant national requirements which must be met.  The most difficult portion of the licensing road test in most states is the dreaded parallel parking test. Travel in reverse at a snail’s pace and fit your vehicle into the box defined by a set of tall orange cones. I’m fairly certain of the 30-40,000 people killed annually on US public roads, poor parallel parking skills were not a major contributing factor.  Unbelievably, some of our states do not require a road test to receive your license but rather allow the students and parents to self-certify their child is capable of independently operating a motor vehicle on public roads.

The reality is a 16-year-old may be a comprehensively better driver than their 40-year-old parent.  We are all wired differently and excel at different types of tasks.  Armed with data showing the staggering number of worldwide motor vehicle related deaths and a strong push from various government agencies, corporations large and small are pouring billions of dollars into developing ADAS and self-driving technologies with the goal of allowing the vehicle to operate more safely independent of the actions of the driver. These incredible technologies will eventually save countless lives but developing these solutions from the vehicle side of the equation is only a portion of the task with limited near term benefits.  There will be millions of humans sitting behind the wheel of old and new vehicles in our lifetime who need a little development also.

I always cringe at disclaimers on the current generation of self-driving technologies stating the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time.  In other words, look ahead immediately, assess the surrounding traffic and anticipate what may occur at any given moment such that I am ready to make any emergency or non-emergency steering, braking and/or acceleration maneuver required.  Really? How many drivers possess these skills even when they are paying attention to driving the vehicle?

Multiple advanced teenage driving instruction programs are offered in the US addressing this lack of skill development for new drivers.  Assuming the student has completed the basic training and licensing requirements of their state, these programs take the next step and teach skills students can use in emergency situations.  Panic braking ensuring full actuation of the ABS system, aggressive lane change maneuvers to avoid an obstacle, split second decision making and, in the best courses, skid control with the aid of a skid car.  The best part about these courses?  Every student hops out of the training vehicle with a smile on their face and a sense of accomplishment.  Learning the basic skills to operate a motor vehicle develops responsibility and maturity and gives most teenagers a sense of newfound freedom; learning to drive a motor vehicle well only enhances this experience and makes all our roads safer.

These advanced programs are typically funded by a combination of private and public funding sources as well as program fees.  As the development and implementation timelines for ADAS and self-driving technologies progress, advanced instruction programs could be implemented as part of all driver’s education curricula for a fraction of the cost.  When I crashed my new bicycle into a ditch after taking the training wheels off, my parents didn’t put the training wheels back on but rather told me to go practice in a safer place.  Continuously improving the active and passive safety features of new vehicles is always a goal of our industry but making the drivers safer from the moment they set out on the open road in any new or old vehicle will yield immediate, life saving results.

                                                                                                                                 John Heider

                                                                                                                                 Cayman Dynamics, LLC

                                                                                                                                 July 7, 2020