Why driver’s ed is not required in Pennsylvania — even though it reduces traffic deaths

School districts are already overburdened, but there could be a workaround.

Community Car Show in North Philadelphia
Bastiaan Slabbers
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What do you need to do to prove you’re ready to get behind the wheel of a car? If you live in Pennsylvania, nothing but a signature from a parent or spouse.

One Philly auto expert is trying to change that.

Fred Simeone, who runs a classic car museum in Southwest Philadelphia and was recently named the No. 1 most significant collector in the world, has been lobbying for the state to require driver’s education. Ideally, he said, instruction would be incorporated into the public school curriculum.

The retired neurosurgeon spent 40 years in the medical field, regularly treating injuries sustained in car accidents — oftentimes by teenagers.

“These kids were in car accidents with pretty much all the same problems: tailgating, failure to adjust their mirrors, lane changing. That’s stuff they might have been able to avoid if they had known better,” Simeone said.

He’s hoping more formal training can prevent some of the accidents that landed young folks on his operating table. “I put kids’ heads back together!”

A statewide requirement would add to the plate of Philadelphia’s already overburdened school district. Still, Simeone argues the potential lifesaving benefits are worth the effort.

Training reduces injuries, studies show

Traffic deaths remain stubbornly high in Philly — especially compared to peer cities. The problem is so seemingly intractable that in 2017 the city implemented a plan called Vision Zero, modeled after a successful Swedish program to reduce fatalities. Individual neighborhoods have also gotten involved in the battle.

So far this year 42 people have died in the city via incidents involving cars, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Two of the victims were children.

Could mandated driver’s education help? A 2015 study from the University of Nebraska showed that young drivers who had not participated in a training course were:

  • 75% more likely to get a traffic ticket
  • 16% more likely to be involved in an accident
  • 24% more likely to be killed or injured behind the wheel

Driver’s ed was once almost universal. In the 1970s, 95% of eligible teenagers across the country had enrolled in some form of training, according to the New York Times — most often through public school.

As educational funding has dropped, so too has the number of schools offering crash courses in auto safety.

There’s no national standard, so it’s up to individual states to decide whether they want to teach driving. In the U.S., 31 states currently require driver’s ed to get your license before you turn 18 years old. If you’re an adult when you apply for your license, only 11 states mandate training.

Technically, Pennsylvania is one of them — but it’s easy to skirt the requirements.

Never been mandated in PA, not taught in Philly

In Pa., if you want your license when you’re 17½ years old, you need to show proof of a completed driver’s education course.

But once you turn 18, you just need a parent or spouse to sign off that you spent 65 hours behind the wheel with them, no actual proof required. Get that signature, show the required identity documentation and pass the road test and you’re golden.

Public schools in the commonwealth have never been required to offer driver’s theory or behind-the-wheel classes, per Department of Education spokesperson Eric Levid.

Neighboring states are a little more strict. In Delaware, you have to sit through 30 hours in the classroom and 7 hours behind the wheel with a certified instructor before you can snag a learner’s permit. In New Jersey, it takes 6 hours behind the wheel.

In Pennsylvania’s database for certified auto education programs, just one Philly school comes up: Penn Treaty High School.

But School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Megan Lello said she doesn’t think the Fishtown school is actually offering driver’s education right now — they just happen to have a teacher who’s certified.

“Certainly it’s an important skill,” Lello told Billy Penn. “But we’re doing so much for our kids to get them ready for next phase of life. It’s not something that’s been top priority for a while.”

Simeone has suggested a couple of workarounds to the budgetary constraints school districts face.

One is establishing a tax on auto fuel that funds a statewide program. Another is to start with a lighter lift: a 45-minute driver’s safety video that teachers can play, or training volunteers to give students a few quick lessons.

For the first time in Simeone’s yearslong battle, he’s finally making progress.

Next week, he’s meeting with Pa. Sen. Tom Killion. The Republican legislator, whose district comprises parts of Chester and Delaware counties, will tour Simeone’s museum and hear his pro-driver’s ed spiel.

The senator’s team isn’t making any promises.

“We’re just at this point listening to what he has to say and trying to see if there’s any issues with our driver’s education system,” said Shannon Royer, Killion’s chief of staff. “We’re not taking any position at this time.”

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