The Right Road For Driver's Ed: Public Or Private?

Oct 4, 2018

Credit Ildar Sagdejev/Wikimedia Commons

Learning how to drive is still a rite of passage for many teenagers, but the requirements to get a license vary by state.

Getting behind the wheel is perhaps the most memorable part of learning to drive, but it also involves a lot of classroom instruction. David Druker is with the Illinois Secretary of State's office. He says that's where the majority of students still get their training. 

"So the majority, 75 percent -- I think it's a couple hundred thousand people in any given school year -- are actually going to the high school driver's ed programs," he said. 

But that isn't the only place where teenagers can learn the rules of the road. Druker says private driving schools offer similar coursework throughout the state.

"No question it is more expensive than taking part in the public education program," he said. "It's meant to supplement the system to be able to get people through in a timely manner."

And timing can be a major factor in what type of education a family or student may choose. Teens can get a learner's permit as early as age 15, but Druker says they need to hold it for at least nine months. It's called a graduated driver license; Druker says those nine months are ideal for taking a driver’s education course.

"You've completed your nine months and you've turned 16. You can go to the DMV and take the road test and if you pass, you'll qualify for the license."

Chris Wingate is Acting President of the Illinois High School and College Driver Education Association. He teaches Driver's Ed at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville. He says a major advantage of public school programs is that the teachers can reinforce proper attitudes outside the classroom. Also, students can learn at a more relaxed pace.

"At my school, they go out for 15-16 drives. They have all this ample time to practice with their parents on the skills we teach them when they go home," he said. "It’s not rushed. It's a very psychologically and socially safe environment with highly skilled and trained instructors."

This contrasts with some commercial schools, which emphasize getting a license quickly. Wingate says an emphasis on finishing the coursework quickly could be problematic.

"You could go out and learn to drive, according to the laws of commercial schools, in four 90-minute sessions," he said. "That's kind of synonymous with cramming if you look at it from the standpoint of general studies."

At least 40 states have adopted similar graduated driver's license programs like Illinois. But many of them have de-emphasized the need for driver's ed. Tom Antkow is President of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas. He says that's why there's been a big boom in commercial schools nationally over the past two decades.

"A lot of the education has been handed to the commercial schools. That's why it's so important that we develop national standards and that we have the states cooperate with the graduated licensing laws," he said. 

His group works with agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the AAA Foundation to codify national standards and certify instructors. But he says not all states adopt these standards on a universal basis.

Commercial driving schools can provide services that public programs may not offer as often. Police officer Joel French owns Blue Line Driving School in DeKalb. He says in addition to American teenagers, he also gives lessons to international students and the elderly.

"I teach a lot of college kids from different countries all around the world. I teach adults. At age 75, they have to take their test again for the DMV, so they call me -- nervous -- which is understandable, and I come and I teach them how to do the test and how to keep their license," he said.

And like parents teaching their kids, French says he's had plenty of close calls on the road. 

"I've literally had to pick someone's leg up off the brake to get them to move and get them off the interstate," he said.

Public schools still remain the main source of driver's education in Illinois, but commercial schools will remain an option, especially in areas where school programs are understaffed.