Despite scary statistics about teen driving risks, some parents put more thought into selecting a flat-screen TV than choosing a driving school for their teenagers.
"A lot of parents just go by price," says Sharon Fife, president of the Driving School Association of the Americas in Kettering, Ohio.
That's a shame, considering the crash rate per mile driven is four times higher for teens than it is for older adults, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Good driving instruction can make a life-or-death difference. A 2004 statistical analysis by the Florida Department of Highway Safety found the cumulative crash rate of graduates of the Melbourne-Fla.-based New Driver Car Control Clinic was 77 percent lower over a four-year period than among the general population of 15- to 19-year-old drivers.
Having your teen complete driver training and safety awareness courses also can lower car insurance rates, depending on your car insurance company. But remember that students need a lot of practice driving. Consider a refresher course to reinforce defensive driving skills after students learn the basics.
"Driver education is like woodworking 101," says James Solomon, director of program development and training for the National Safety Council's defensive driving courses. "When you are finished with woodworking 101, you're not ready to build a house."
Some driver education programs are better than others, though. Here are six factors to consider when choosing a driving school:
Many states require students to complete classroom and behind-the-wheel training to get a driver's license. If you're looking for a course to satisfy these requirements, make sure the programs meet your state's standards, Solomon says.
"Don't just go by the commercial for a driving school," Solomon says.
Check the licensing status of the school with the agency that regulates driving instruction in your state, Fife says. Typically, that's the department of motor vehicles, public safety or education.
Who runs the school and what is the operator's background? Does the school belong to a professional association, such as the Driving School Association of the Americas?
Find out if the school is a member of the Better Business Bureau and whether any complaints have been filed with the bureau against the school.
Ask for references and talk to other families about their experiences with the program.
Ask for a syllabus, and evaluate whether the content meets your goals.
For basic behind-the-wheel instruction, check how much time will be devoted to driving in different areas and under varying traffic conditions, Solomon says. Schools should expose teenagers to a variety of driving situations with gradually increasing levels of challenges, from quiet residential streets to business districts and expressways.
Some programs set up special courses on tracks so students can safely experience what it feels like to handle a car under different conditions.
For instance, the New Driver Control Clinic has students drive 25 miles per hour before asking them to stop at a certain point marked by traffic cones. The exercise is repeated after the track has been hosed down with water and a small amount of oil to simulate wet roads.
Once students realize it takes longer to stop on wet surfaces, they learn not to follow other cars too closely in wet weather, clinic owner Richard Lane says.
Look for programs that employ instructors with experience and training beyond state licensing requirements, Fife says. The school management and staff should have completed at least three professional development courses, according to AAA.
Check the condition and age of the school's vehicles, Fife says. They should be late-model cars in good condition.
Also, check how the vehicles compare to the one your child will be driving at home. Most schools use small cars because they're easier to maneuver, Solomon says, although he recently noticed a couple of driving schools using 12-passenger vans for behind-the-wheel training.
Teens should get practice learning to handle vehicles similar to the ones they'll drive at home.
Ask how much the program costs and about the school's policies for make-up lessons and refunds.
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