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.