A state representative has proposed a bill that would require Missouri public high schools to offer driver’s education courses, a topic that hits close to home after two local students died in vehicle accidents over the last week.
State Rep. Galen Higdon, R-District 11, has introduced HB2178 which “requires all public high schools, including charter schools, to offer a one-credit driver’s education course as an elective credit. Driver’s education will not be required for high school graduation.”
A public hearing on the bill took place Monday, but no other hearings have been scheduled.
The Sedalia School District 200 offers driver’s ed, for a fee, during summer school each year, taught by Ashley Young and Mike Robertson. Both said they would be in support of expanding driver’s ed to help more students, although they understand logistics can be tough for districts.
“I think it is absolutely important enough to offer it for students, also, however, I completely understand the logistics for a district — how do you pay for it, how do you do it, where is it held, during school hours, after school, in the summer, getting people qualified to instruct it,” Young said.
“I understand the restraints on a district having to put it in because of state law, but at the same time I know with our program what a good job we do and how heavily we stress safety. I believe (driver’s ed) saves lives, there’s no doubt in my mind it saves lives.”
Robertson said he thinks Higdon has a “great idea,” but that some changes could be made to the bill to make it more feasible for districts, such as continuing to offer the course during the summer due to the difficulty of teaching driver’s ed during the school year or even funding a portion of the course so students don’t have to pay such a high fee.
For the last several years, Sedalia 200’s course typically has between 30 and 40 students, the instructors said, but Robertson said they were teaching upwards of 90 to 110 students when the summer course was state-funded.
“There’s a lot of ways they could do it,” Robertson said. “… I feel if the state is going to pay for (summer classes like health and finance), why don’t they pay for something that could save a life? We can’t put a price on a student’s life. If they were to spend a little money, what we’re offering would be so much more beneficial because that’s something they need for their entire life is driving skills.”
The district’s course is one of the only driver’s ed programs offered in the area. It includes 30 hours of classroom time and six hours behind the wheel, driving a car donated by Williams Woody Nissan, which also helps cut down on course costs. While behind the wheel, the students practice driving residential, country, highway and divided highway roads, as well as left-hand turns, exiting and entering highways and going over the skills needed to pass the driver’s license test.
“In the six hours we have them behind the wheel, we try to take them through as many scenarios as we can that would be common, that you would encounter when you drive all the time,” Young said. “I think we present the course in a very practical and relevant and realistic way that prepares them to not only pass the exam but prepares them to be a safer, more confident driver when they’re on the roads on their own.”
According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, 118 fatal crashes by young driver involvement — defined by MSHP as “any crash in which one or more drivers of motorized vehicles directly involved in the traffic crash were under the age of 21” — occurred in 2014, the last year data is available, killing 139 people.
Also in 2014, 8,647 personal injury crashes by young driver involvement occurred, with 13,081 people injured.
2014 saw the lowest number of both fatal crashes and personal injury crashes involving young drivers since 2005, which was the oldest data available on the site.
Although tragedy has struck Sedalia schools twice this month, Robertson noted the area has been mostly fortunate regarding the loss of students. Both instructors said driver’s ed helps save lives, but Young pointed out that personal choice still affects drivers of any age.
“Would requiring driver’s ed put safer drivers on streets and highways? Yes, but personal choice still makes a significant role in driving,” Young said. “Any educator given any subject can teach that subject to the best of their ability but it’s still up to the individual what they’ll do with that information. Can it make young adults better drivers, yes it can, but does it fix the problem of free will and choice? No it does not. If a driver still chooses to drive distracted or impaired, they can still make that choice and that will play a significant role in driving safety.”
Teens already have stricter driving laws than adults. According to the Missouri Department of Revenue’s website, “all first-time drivers between 15 and 18 years old complete a period of driving with a licensed driver (instruction permit), and restricted driving (intermediate license), before getting a full driver license.” Alcohol-related offenses can get drivers even up to age 21 a suspended license.
“We’re both very passionate about what we do,” Robertson said. “We would like to see the program expanded. We feel strongly all high school students should take driver’s ed.”
Applications for Sedalia 200’s driver’s education course can be found in the Smith-Cotton High School counselor’s office, from Young or Robertson, and at sedalia200.org. The course runs from June 6 to July 1 and costs $180. Applications are due to the District Office by Friday, June 3.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.