In an age when kids are both overscheduled and glued to their devices, on-demand drivers education is the next frontier. Rather than spending hours in a drab classroom after school a couple times a week, like generations prior, students are flocking to their phones to get the same lessons online.
That may sound risky, but before you fear for the safety of the roads, know that online curricula only replace the classroom instruction portion of drivers’ ed. First-time drivers still need to spend time behind the wheel with a professional instructor before taking their driver’s test.
There are no federal standards for drivers education, leaving states and localities to make their own patchwork of regulations. All but a few states require that first-time drivers complete a certain level of driving instruction before receiving their license. Enter a new crop of websites and mobile apps designed to supplant traditional drivers ed, allowing students to complete the course at their own pace and on their own schedule.
What the Online Programs Look Like
The programs, generally broken into 10 to 12 segments, cover the gamut of important automotive topics, including night driving, steering, and dashboard symbols. Chapters might include “Physical and Psychological Issues,” “Accident Causes and Prevention,” and “Sharing the Road.” Not all courses are created equal, of course. That’s why anyone considering an online program should be sure to check that the course meets their state’s requirements.
Kalisto Hercules, 16, from Los Angeles, is halfway through a curriculum from Aceable, which runs online courses for teen drivers’ ed in California and Ohio. So far, they’ve covered dangers including speeding, texting and driving, and parking on hills. “Now I’ve been learning about the signs and what they mean.”
Aceable’s lessons use interactive videos, games, and even memes to teach students the rules of the road. The curriculumspans 30 hours, which is how long most states call for teenagers seeking driver’s licenses to spend studying the material pertaining to the written portion of the driving test administered by their state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
In-Person Instruction Still Required
Students who finish the online classes receive a certificate of completion in the mail that they can bring to the local DMV to get their learner’s permit. Once the learner's permit is granted, students must select a certified driving school to start the behind-the-wheel portion of their education. The cost of those lessons vary by area but generally run between $50 and $150 per session.
Most states mandate a specific amount of time behind the wheel with an instructor. Another several dozen states call for driving students to be supervised by an adult who is a licensed driver. Exact required driving hours vary state by state. Additionally, a portion of those hours must be at night.
Benefits of Online Drivers Ed
A major benefit to online programs is the cost, which is typically less than in-classroom instruction at a commercial driving school.Aceable’s programs are $49, but Hercules bought the app on sale for $25. Classroom courses can cost several hundred dollars.
Like most online courses, the lessons are self-paced and don’t expire. “You have to pay attention because after a few slides, it will ask you a question to make sure you’re listening,” Hercules said. “If you miss some, you have to start the lesson over.”
Students and parents say online courses save them time and money. It’s also a convenient option in under-populated areas that don’t have a local driving school. The software is also better at assessing students’ progress than a classroom instructor. Unlike a printed book or manual, it can be updated seamlessly in real time if regulations change.
There don’t appear to be major differences in the quality of online programs vis-a-vis traditional classroom instruction. “There’s good online course and bad online courses, just as there are good classroom programs and bad classroom programs,” said Debbie Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, an Illinois-based nonprofit that promotes health and safety. “Young people are really comfortable with using technology,” Hersman said. “There’s a lot of teaching and learning happening online.”
Still, some agencies don’t think states require enough training. The American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA), a Pennsylvani a-based organization of traffic safety educators, recommends 45 hours of in-class learning and eight hours behind the wheel.
Safety Is Always the Primary Concern
Many parents also advocate for more education before their children take off with the car keys on their own. “Safety is our first concern,” said Annette Benedetti of Portland, Ore., who is researching programs to eventually enroll her 14-year-old daughter in a drivers’ education course. Benedetti said she was not aware of online classes but would consider one for her daughter if it were thorough.
“We want her to be a confident and safe driver and to know that she has good technical skills before we hand her the keys to the car,” she said. “Even more important is feeling confident that she is aware of the severity of the consequences that can occur from a mistake while behind the wheel.”
Data show that newly licensed teenaged drivers are especially vulnerable during the first year. Many of them are involved in some type of collision during the first 1,000 miles they drive.
That’s why there’s no substitute for behind-the-wheel experience, Hersman said. A student can’t learn the basics of adjusting the car’s mirrors or putting the car into gear from an online video or owner’s manual. “That’s experiential learning,” she said. “Those are basic things a novice driver needs to know.”