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Today's Driver's Ed Mistakes and Myths

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

You remember the Coach, who taught driver’s ed, right? In his polyester shorts, with the whistle dangling around his neck, he stood in the classroom and described to all of us how to drive. Or more likely, he dimmed the lights for the scary car crash movie.

Summer’s coming and the Coach is getting ready for another summer of teaching the behind-the-wheel component of driver’s ed, though many school districts have dropped the class, leaving more teens on their own for learning to drive. And those private driving schools? They are diploma factories, teaching kids how to pass the parallel parking test.

“They are really concentrating on parallel parking,” said Bill Wade national program manager for Tire Rack Street Survival. “Parallel parking is such a cause of death among teen drivers,” he chuckled.

Most drivers ed classes do provide a lot of good, solidly useful information. But some things they teach are wrong, some things are taught the wrong way, and some important information is omitted entirely. Lets recap some common mistakes by driver’s ed, according to experts in advanced driver training.

Myth #1: Lecture in the classroom, then drive on the road

Most driver’s ed programs involve a large number of hours of classroom lecture time, only after the completion of which do students slide behind the wheel for some hands-on practice.

But students need to learn a little, then immediately practice what they have learned, so they can see the relevance of that information immediately. Mercedes-Benz has been studying driver’s education in an effort to advance the safety of its customers, and launched a teen driving program in Britain last year. Now, that program is coming to the U.S. at the end of this year.

“What we are striving for is moving away from this sequential approach,” explained Alexander Hobbach, senior manager for Daimler AG. When classroom material is presented in its entirety before the behind-the-wheel practice, the lectures on theory can be six months old before drivers can try it for themselves. “We would like the teen to have the opportunity to combine theory with practical experience in the car to see how they relate to each other,” he said. “There is concurrent learning happening.”

Myth #2: Six hours of behind-the-wheel practice is adequate

An increasing number of states are requiring teens to accumulate 40 or more hours of driving, typically with their parents, but the norm for behind-the-wheel practice with a professional instructor is six hours in the U.S.

This standard was set in the 1940s, “but right from the start that was considered grossly inadequate based on the complexities of the job,” noted Bob Green, senior instructor for Skip Barber Racing School’s teen driving program.

“This six hours of training behind the wheel is a pretty low number,” echoed Hobbart. “In Germany, it is more than 20 hours of training with a professional instructor, driving with bad weather and different road conditions. In the UK, the national average is closer to 40 hours.”

Exacerbating this shortage of time, students may not have the same instructor each day, causing inconsistency and potential oversights in instruction, Hobbart pointed out.

Myth #3: Responsible drivers will never get into an emergency situation

Traditional drivers ed rightfully emphasizes the importance of responsible behavior in avoiding emergency situations. But because they assume kids won’t encounter such problems, they provide no instruction or practice for what to do when an emergency arises.

“It is irresponsible,” Green asserts. “Everybody who has ever driven a car has probably had a little bit of a skid.”

It is human nature to make mistakes or to glance away at something at the instant the car ahead slams on the brakes, according to Brent Hollida, chief instructor for BSR Inc. “A trained driver will probably make the same number of driving mistakes,” he said. “We’re not perfect.”

Because of this, it is critical that drivers are taught how to respond in a crisis. Absent such instruction and practice, drivers typically fail to react constructively when a collision is imminent. “Most folks have had no training in emergency situations,” said Green. “It is pretty frightening. Most people do nothing. They freeze up.”

Myth #4 Pump the brakes to avoid skidding

One might think this is the result of out-of-date training, from the days when driver’s ed commonly counseled brake pedal pumping to avoid locking the wheels and sliding. Today, drivers ed programs explain that this is no longer the preferred technique because modern car’s anti-lock systems pump the brakes for you.

But brake pumping was always self-defeating and was never good practice even in non-ABS cars because constant pressure at the verge of lockup – when the tire stops turning and starts skidding – is how brake distance is minimized. Now drivers need coaching to stomp the brake pedal to let the ABS computer do its work, and to not let off because of any vibration or feedback they may feel through the pedal as a result of the system working.

Even without today’s instructors misleading them, many drivers seem to reflexively react inappropriately, doing things such as furiously pumping the brake pedal rather than pressing it quickly and holding it firmly at the verge of lockup. Such counterproductive behavior may be instinctive, because Hollida says that adult students from other countries who grew up not driving at all also exhibit this response in his classes.

Myth #5: Hands at 8 and 4 o’clock on the wheel.

A popular myth today is that because of the air bag in the steering wheel, drivers should position their hands low on the wheel, at the 8 and 4 o’clock positions, keeping them out of the blast zone in the event the air bag deploys.

“Driving like that you are going to deploy more air bags,” retorted Hollida. Telling drivers that if they drive with their hands in the correct 10-and-2 or 9-and-3 positions that they will be killed or injured by their arms flying backward into their heads if the air bag deploys is “junk science,” he fumed.

“We don’t teach 8-and-4,” agreed Wade. With the hands that low on the wheel there is no room for the arms and elbows to move in response to an emergency, he said.

The hands and arms can be dangerous if held at the 12:00 position, or if they are crossed over in the process of making a turn when the air bag deploys, but as long as they are out closer to the edges of the steering wheel, the airbag will shove them aside when it fires, he said.

Proper hand placement is aided by correct seat adjustment, he added. That means no gansta slouch into the back seat. “You are an adult. Sit up straight like one,” he commanded.

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Today's Driver's Ed Mistakes and Myths - Autotrader