How to Choose a Driving School - 6 Things to Look For
1. When you are in your vehicle try to watch drivers-ed cars in traffic. Is the instructor talking to the students and pointing at things? I have found there is always something to talk about at a stop light. Also is the instructor talking on the phone? This isn't good. Does the instructor have a clipboard in their lap? This means the instructor is writing things down while the student is driving or probably not discussing relevant things (they're looking a check-off list). This is unsafe as the instructors should have their eyes on the road just as much as the students. Is the instructor sitting far away from the dash? A rule of instructing is to sit close enough to the dash that you can easily grab the steering wheel if necessary. Sometimes sitting too far away makes the student feel nervous which is something nobody wants. Also, if you see a driver education car with no students and the person is driving unsafe - this means they are "do as I say, not as I do" kind of teacher. Are they practicing what they preach? Or are they the hypocritical driver that complains about other drivers and yet drives unethically and unsafe? Also do they have their full headlights on? If they don't it means the instructors don't understand all the factors involved in accidents.
2. If the website doesn't explain much you'll need to email or text each school and ask what is on the curriculum during behind-the-wheel lessons. Some instructors are very proud of their routes and will gladly tell you where they like to go. Watch for the instructors who take students on long drives. While there are things to learn from long drives, there are only 6 hours of instruction before they are set free to drive with you. Students should be exposed to as many driving environments as possible. And don't be afraid to ask if they drive on the freeway.
You can also ask them what is discussed during the drive. An experienced instructor should be able to tell you the topics covered during the drive. If an instructor stumbles a bit when answering this question - this could be a sign they are a direction-only-teacher. Basically most of their talking is telling the student where to go.
3. Ask them if they allow the parent to dictate where they drive to. Some instructors have set routes and will tell a parent basically it's their way or the highway. Good schools have no problem abiding by a parents wishes.
4. Ask about extra activities or homework. Keep in mind not all homework is the same. Simple questions out of the Driver's Manual are okay but don't really get the student to think and absorb the content. The extra activities also need to be varied and unique. Many schools require a student to change a tire and/or do maintenance checks. While this is important there are more activities a student can do to really learn new things. Attending a class on train safety taught buy a train specialist like Operation Lifesaver is one example.
5. When talking to other parents who've used the school - watch for phrases like..."He's a very nice guy", or "It was real easy", or "it was pretty good". After the student signs up, parent involvement is almost zero so they have no real idea of the quality of the education. Don't be afraid to ask specific questions regarding what was actually taught. If the parent isn't sure then that is a sign the driving school wasn't very good.
6. UPDATE...In my opinion, one of the best ways to help you decide on a school is to simply ask to sit in on a class or ask to be a passenger in the car. Many schools will have an open seat in the back of a class or car to observe. If the school says "no", then you say "no" to that school. At Ultra Safe I encourage adults to ride along in the car whether or not they have a student in the class. I've had many parents tell me that they learned some new things while riding along.
Physical Classroom vs. Online Classroom - Pros and Cons of Each
At first it seems obvious that a driver education program with an actual classroom is best. The student learns by using a text book and gets more opportunity to talk about driving - basically getting more involved in the driving task. A 3 to 5 week class gives the student more time to think and talk about driving with friends and family. This also seems a very good benefit, but unfortunately in my opinion, students usually don't think and talk about anything useful pertaining to driving. How do I know? I work at a high school and notice when students talk about their driver education. The conversations with their peers are not that good - hopefully they are better with their parents. I usually hear things like "my instructor is weird" or "remember when John hit the curb?". The concept of a 30 hour classroom sounds great and has fabulous potential in helping the student drive safer, but after working for several private driver education schools including public driver education it is my opinion that most drivers ed classrooms are unfortunately missing the great opportunity they are given. I would like to stress that some schools might have a great classroom experience but from my personal experience and testimonies from parents and students I have yet to find one that satisfies my high standards.
What is actually taught and learned in a driver education classroom? For the most part it depends on the reading material. Most schools either use the Idaho Driver's Manual or a textbook. Both contain good information. The drivers manual is basically a simplified version of the text book. The textbooks used, generally the Drive Right and AAA Learn to Drive text books, have lots of pictures and miscellaneous information and "tools" but, when really examined thoroughly contain about the same amount of information as the Idaho Driver's Manual. So how good is the Idaho Driver's Manual? Well, it is good, but not great. Many extremely important concepts or laws, especially the couple pages on defensive driving, could have been greatly expanded upon. This is where a teacher in a classroom setting should be able to "fill-in-the-gaps". But most do not. The Idaho Driver's Manual and the other random stuff that happens in the classroom rarely gives time for advanced content such as defensive driving concepts. [Do you know there is a simple defensive driving technique that could prevent stress, close calls, and wrecks that only takes 1 second? And you do it only 1 time per drive! Do you also know that over 90% of all cars on the road, including driver education cars do not do this amazingly easy 1 second technique?] I also observed that over 50% of all content learned from the manual or text books is extra info such as insurance, vehicle maintenance, buying cars, and other miscellaneous laws like drinking & driving. While all of this sounds good, you do not need an instructor to learn these things. Content does matter. A few years ago I witnessed, in a hallway, a 15 year old girl arguing with an instructor of a private driving school. She specifically said "I saved up $300 of my own money and the entire class is based on the driver's manual, this class was not worth it, I can read the manual at home!!". The instructor was upset because she contacted the Better Business Bureau. He basically said she had to leave the class and he would refund her the money. [Keep in mind he was arguing with a 15 year old girl] It was a disturbing and eye-opening moment for me. I realized these kids really do want to learn!!
The following is an approximate breakdown of actual time learning. Some schools might be better with their time, and some schools might be worse. Most private drivers ed schools use a 2 to 3.5 hour class orientation as part of the 30 hour course. The orientation includes the parents and is an overview of the course, confirmation of the driving schedule, and time for taking payments - basically housekeeping stuff. This means that the student will now only receive 26.5 to 28 hours of actual classroom. But wait, it takes about 10 minutes to get the lesson started. With about 9 classes per course this means about 90 minutes of time is wasted. Now the student receives 25 to 26.5 hours of classroom. But wait, each class session gets a minimum of 20 minutes of break time per class. This means at least 180 minutes (3 hours) is wasted. Now the student receives 22 to 23.5 hours of classroom. Many schools also have a pizza party or other celebration at the end of the course. This is 1.5 to 3.5 hours depending on the driving school. Now the student receives at best 20.5 to 22 hours of actual instruction. Now lets factor in that almost 50% of all that is learned in the class is extra info (as stated above) - and you will see that most students get 10 to 11 hours of actual good driving information. And these times can all be adjusted more if the driving school has longer orientations, breaks, pizza graduation parties, goofing around, and other non-driving related activities. Some driving schools have their students sit on street corners (not safe) and observe traffic as part of the 30 hour classroom time. Public driver education does a much better job getting students closer to actual 30 hours of instruction. But even with them, about 50% of the content is extra stuff. Public driver education, and sometimes private schools, have a police officer come talk to the students. This is a gamble. After observing 6 different police officers talk to classes, I would say that all 6 failed miserably in their opportunity to teach some real good stuff but, after all, they are cops not teachers. In fact, one time I was observing a class and since none of the students (naturally) couldn't come up with any good driving related questions - I had to think of some good questions for them. If I hadn't been there the 60 minutes of classroom would have been practically worthless.
I have observed 8 teachers. Most were certified public school teachers. One teacher was great, one was good, and the others basically stunk. Teaching for long periods of time, whether privately with little-to-no professional training, or being a certified public school teacher makes very little difference in the quality of the education received. If your looking at a school that has a classroom, I would suggest sitting in on a class to see what is taught and how the content is taught before signing up.
Probably the only real benefit for a classroom is that it usually takes between 3 to 5 weeks to complete. This means the entire process is spread out over a longer time period allowing for more discussions about what is learned. Working at a high school for 12 years I have listened to many discussions teen's have regarding what they are learning. Whether casually in the halls or waiting for their driving instructor to show up, the conversations are usually quite dull and boring. They don't discuss anything interesting - anything controversial. They usually talk about what they like and don't like about their driving instructor. I have also asked many students little quiz questions to see if they are learning defensive driving concepts. For example..."How can adjusting your mirrors correctly prevent you from getting rear-ended?". Or.."What is your safety net when you become distracted, you miscalculate distance, speed, or traction, or you assume something you shouldn't?". Or..."What 3 things can you do to help people see you better?".
Overall most driving schools that utilize an actual classroom are missing a fantastic opportunity to teach a lot of great, useful concepts & techniques. At Ultra Safe we wish we had a classroom. Unfortunately we can't at this point. We make up for it by creating an in-car classroom curriculum. The in-car classroom, in addition to the parent meeting and after-drive evaluations means the student receives close to 6 hours of additional education. For most driving schools, a classroom is good if you want your student to get lots of miscellaneous car, driving, and legal information. But we feel the student can learn these on their own time reading the manual. We strive to fill-in-the-gaps talking about concepts and scenarios rarely discussed. And of course we teach all driving laws based mainly upon a safety perspective. This means that we examine the potential risks of a situation and how to avoid or minimize those risks FIRST, then talk about whether there is a law pertaining to it. We also look at all driving concepts from different perspectives. For example..."How is a hard stop unethical for the car in front of you?". Or "How does speed affect your gas mileage?". Or "How does tailgaiting increase the chance of rear-ending a car...and you can't say it's because you are close to the car?". Or "How does speed affect your ability to scan for potential problems?". Or "What simple technique can you do that would minimize the chance of over-correcting?". At Ultra Safe, at the end of the parent meeting and each drive, we also leave the student with a controversial or difficult question to answer. They are told to talk about it with a parent. For example..."If driving straight and someone does a left turn in front of you, and you will have a collision, would you rather swerve or brake or both?". The question is not answered in any book. But at Ultra Safe we discuss this situation thoroughly. Here is another good question we ask "how can adjusting your side mirror incorrectly lead to a roll over crash that kills you?".
We feel that most school's 10-15 hours of actual classroom instruction is not as useful, realistic, informational, or...let's face it - life saving as Ultra Safe's 6 hours. And also remember Ultra Safe utilizes Idaho Online Driver Education which is similar in scope to many of the physical classrooms out there.
We Taught a Phillips Driving School Student
The purpose of this article is to make parents aware that not all driving schools are the same and that it is important to choose your school wisely and get involved in your child's driver education as much as possible. If Phillips Driving School reads this article and improves their education then that would be great too.
I acknowledge that Phillips Driving School has many instructors and each instructor tends to teach differently. However, many simple techniques or procedures should be universal no matter how many instructors work for a company. Please also understand that many things Ultra Safe teaches are not known by most instructors. Some of our techniques have taken years to develop through reflection and research. I must keep reminding myself that most instructors probably wouldn't mind teaching better, they just don't know how. I happen to know 2 of Phillips instructors and they are good people.
[UPDATE - September 27th, 2019 - We taught our second Phillips student and it didn't go well. Posted at the end of this article.]
I recently taught our first Phillips Driving School student. The parent was concerned that their student was "not getting it'. There was also a close call while the parent was instructing their student. [Ultra Safe requires a parent observation drive in which the parent receives many useful tips and strategies, as well as "How to Take Over Instructing Your Student" reading material - this greatly reduces the stress and close-calls after driver education.] Here is a quick evaluation. Please keep in mind that it is possible the instructor(s) who taught this student had good intentions but simply are not as advanced as I am. So it's best to give the instructor the benefit of the doubt.
1. Did not adjust side mirrors correctly and was not able to explain why he adjusted the mirrors the way he did.
2. Did not know how to evaluate where to stop. He simply stopped before entering the roadway and did not know the safety reason for where to stop. (hint: it's not necessarily at the stop sign or stop line)
3. Did not do the proper checks before doing a lane change. To make sure he simply didn't forget the checks, we had him explain the steps. He was not sure of the checks and what he was looking for.
4. Was never taught the lane change pre-check and how it can significantly reduce stress and the potential rear-end collision.
5. Was never taught how to ask directions for smoother lane changes and less stress.
6. Was never taught anything about lane position except to stay in the center lane position. This is a defensive driving tool we thoroughly explain. Like most of the things on this list, it is possible that the instructor just doesn't understand these concepts and therefore can't teach them.
7. Was never taught the major causes of wrecks and how they are related to each other. He was naturally taught about the dangers of impaired driving, distracted driving, and fatigued driving. This is covered exclusively in classes and the Idaho Drivers Manual. We cover the other major reasons for wrecks and discuss how you can eliminate these factors. For example, "Intimidation" is a major reason for many wrecks. Many people who are about to turn left or right onto a street make the fatal mistake of looking in their rear view mirror. Doing so can make you more likely to pull out when you shouldn't. Many students look in their rear view mirror because they were simply told to look in their rear view mirror all the time (some teach students to look in the mirror every 5 seconds - this can be a fatal technique).
8. Looked in his rear view mirror too much. Most people look in their rear view mirror too much. Unlike experienced drivers who look in the mirror for the cop, students tend to look in the rear view mirror too much simply because they were told to do so. Looking in your mirror at the proper time is an an extremely hard technique to master. Our students do not master the technique of when, specifically to look in the rear view mirror - but they are introduced to it and taught it repetitively. The Phillips student was not able to explain when it is optimal to look in the mirror. Learning the proper technique actually improves scanning ability and risk assessment.
9. Was not taught the legal or safety reason for why you must use turn signals in a round-a-bout.
10. Was not taught how Visibility is one of the major causes of wrecks and what they can do to help other drivers see them better (and also improving their ability to see other drivers). One of the techniques to help people see you better actually takes 1 second, and you only do it once per drive.
11. Was never taught the super important check to do when approaching a green light. So far we have not seen this technique taught in any book, manual, class, or video.
12. Was unaware of the dangers of driving next to another vehicle. The blind-spot, which he was taught by Phillips, is an important safety concern - but we are not talking about the blind-spot. We taught him the proper vehicle space management technique to reduce close calls, collisions, over-correcting and encourage escape-route scanning.
I think you get the picture. I encourage all students to take driver education. Even inefficient, assembly line, basic driver education is better than no driver education. But I hope you understand that not all driving schools are the same.
UPDATE - September 27th, 2019
A mom called me and requested an evaluation drive for her daughter. The young lady received her permit from Phillips 6 months prior. To summarize a long story we basically told the mom "your daughter should never have received her permit". The mom and student were very understanding. I signed the student up for my regular course. After 5 drives and nearly 7 hours of extra driving the mom was very pleased with her daughters progress. The problem with many instructors is they pass students who should be getting a few more hours of practice, in hopes that everything will smooth out while practicing with parents. This is wishful, optimist thinking but can easily end badly. Whomever taught the young lady should be ashamed of themselves for passing a student who was a danger to herself and others. But, this was only one instructor - Phillips has many instructors who probably do a much better job.
Why Focusing on Texting & Driving is Not Enough
Texting & Driving is a serious driving flaw and major factor in most collisions. This is common knowledge but we forget that there was a time when there was no such thing as texting and driving. Before texting there were plenty of collisions on the roadway. If we look back in time we'll see that all of the wrecks prior to texting - still happen today. At UltraSafe we teach 9 major reasons for all wrecks and explore what we, the driver, can do to minimize or eliminate each ingredient in the collision cake. They are: Speed, Space, Distraction, Visibility, Traction, Impatience, Miscalculation, Intimidation, and over confidence. There are other reasons such as drinking and driving but these are the most common. And with a little examination you'll find that many of these reasons are related to each other, such as speed and traction. Unfortunately, we have been so incredibly bombarded with anti-texting & driving messages that we tend to forget what also is distracted driving and that there are 7 other major reasons for collisions.
Distraction includes looking at anything not related to the driving task. While looking in your rear view mirror at the tailgaiter can be considered a distraction (which it is), it is actually a part of the driving task. Looking for the window button, changing a station or song, or adjusting the temperature is not a required part of the driving task. So obviously looking at your phone is not. How about looking for your phone? Looking for your phone and looking at your phone is basically distracted driving. Although when you are looking for your phone you don't tend to stare at it - like you do at the screen on your phone. But nevertheless, both are still categorized as distracted driving even though most of us might question this comparison. And we don't all agree on what is distracted driving because we all have our own perceptions of risk that help us determine when we are being risky drivers. One driver told me they only text and drive when they have adequate following distance. Their perception of risk was not as comprehensive as mine. When it comes to distracted driving, any and all things that distract our eyes and attention from the driving task should be considered equal to each other.
We also tend to forget the other major reasons for wrecks that were just as prevalent before texting as it is now. Before texting most people who thought they were safe drivers would say "well, I don't speed, I have no speeding tickets". Now people say "I'm a safe driver I don't text". Some still mention speeding but I'm starting to hear from more and more young people that the main gauge of safe driving is whether you text and drive or not. Focusing entirely on a few safe driving techniques is an eas
y way to forget the other reasons for wrecks or safer driving techniques like following distance; or it allows the driver to minimize risk by creating an excuse to drive unsafe by comparing it to the ultimate unsafe driving technique...texting and driving (passenger: "you need to slow down a little" - - driver: "I'm fine, at least I don't text and drive").
When evaluating your driving or maybe your child's driving please do not only rely upon texting and driving (and/or wearing a seatbelt) as the most important way to determine safe driving. Texting & driving is serious and should always be treated as one of the ultimate no-nos in driving. But also remember, even if you don't text and drive - unsafe speeds, lack of space, lack of visibility, loss of traction, impatient driving, miscalculating when to do or not to do something, and being intimidated by drivers behind you can also lead to a serious collision and be just as dangerous as distracted driving (which includes texting & driving).