- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina still doesn’t have solid information on how well school-based driver education classes prepare young motorists to operate a car or whether state funding for the programs is well spent, according to a report presented to legislators Wednesday.

The General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division examined how the Department of Public Instruction responded to a 2011 law requiring more central oversight of driver education. About 100,000 students annually take classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction at high schools to obtain a training certificate that’s a prerequisite to obtaining a learner’s permit, according to DPI.

Before 2011, there were no driver’s ed curriculum requirements. There were complaints that too many certified students were failing a sign and knowledge test the Division of Motor Vehicles also required before issuing their permits. Of 1 million student tests administered by DMV from the 2007-08 to 2012-13 fiscal years, 46 percent didn’t get passing grades, according to data released Wednesday.

“A failure rate of 46 percent is unacceptable,” division director John Turcotte told legislators hearing the report.

The division, the legislature’s government watchdog agency, found the 2011 law has been mostly implemented but the department has yet to institute performance indicators or collect complete data on program spending. For example, lawmakers allocated $26.1 million to the 115 school districts this fiscal year, but DPI doesn’t collect sufficient numbers on other sources districts spent on the program.

Program goals have been set, but measurable objectives “would allow the driver education community to determine if the goal has been accomplished, and to what extent accomplishment improves the ability of teens to safely and efficiently operate a motor vehicle,” the report said. It suggested comparing accident and citation data for young drivers who took driver’s education and those who didn’t.

Teenagers who don’t participate in driver education in high school can obtain a license without formal training when they turn 18. Like all motorists, they still must pass a road test to obtain a permanent license.

The Department of Public Instruction said it intends to have performance measures in place by August to update a strategic plan already approved by the State Board of Education.

DPI is committed to providing a superior driver education program,” Reginald Flythe, the department’s driver education consultant, told committee members.

The number of students taking DMV tests also has apparently declined. The number of tests administered fell from 191,000 in 2011-12 to about 126,000 the following year, when the testing failure rate also declined to 33 percent.

The reductions came as the General Assembly allowed local school districts to charge a driver education fee - now capped at $55 per student - to help pay for the program. Turcotte speculated the fee dissuaded students who were lukewarm about driving from taking driver’s ed. DPI also suggested the decline might stem from the poor economy, parental driving and the availability of social media for teens to connect with friends.

“These students are just not engaged in the driving process,” said Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, who counts her two 16-year-old granddaughters among with those with no interest in driving for now.

From 1999 to 2010, North Carolina’s rate for traffic fatalities among people ages 15-18 was higher than the rate in 31 other states, according to the report. Teen fatality and injury rates have fallen substantially over the past 15 years, but the state’s teen fatality rate hasn’t declined compared to those in other states, the report said.

North Carolina’s three-step graduated licensing program requires a 15-year-old to receive at least 18 months of varying levels of supervised instruction behind the wheel before qualifying for a full provisional license.

The report listed some recommendations, which will be considered next month by a General Assembly oversight committee.

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