Online courses for teen drivers debated
Traffic safety weighed against cost concerns
Driver education has come a long way since Uncle Billy taught Don Gorman of Deerfield to drive.
Gorman, who testified this week in favor of a bill to allow New Hampshire teens to take driver education classes online, said he learned all he needed to know before taking his road test from Uncle Billy, and besides a smack on the head when he hit the brakes or the clutch too hard, the lessons were free.
Today, driver education classes cost between $500 and $700, and include 30 hours in a classroom and 10 hours on the road with a certified instructor.
That price tag was a big part of the reason dozens of people attended the hearing on Tuesday about a bill to add New Hampshire to the list of states - seven so far - that allow teens to take at least part of their driver education online.
A parent or other licensed driver over the age of 30 would assume responsibility for the 10 hours of driving training.
Until last year, the state required public high schools to offer driver education to students and provided a $150-per-student subsidy to fund the programs or the cost of a contract with a private driver instruction school.
This could be the last year that Concord High School will be among 13 public high schools and three private schools running their own programs. The loss of the state subsidy made the program more expensive, so the administration's proposed budget eliminated it.
The Concord School Board will be discussing the proposed cut at a budget work session Monday at 5:30 p.m.
Other schools in the state fulfilled the requirement by hiring one of the 78 private driver education schools to teach interested students to drive.
The owners of many of those schools attended the same hearing as Gorman and spoke out against the bill, saying it would make New Hampshire roads more dangerous.
The sponsors of the bill, including Rep. Laura Jones, a Rochester Republican, and Rep. Tara Sad, a Walpole Democrat, said on the contrary, it would encourage more teens to take a course, as opposed to waiting until they are 18 and can take the driving test for their license without the instructional requirement.
The N.H. Division of Motor Vehicles doesn't track how many license applications are placed by 18-year-olds who avoided driver education, said Director Richard Bailey.
DMV officials have been talking with the sponsors about how an online program could be crafted in a way that the division can implement and supervise it properly, but the agency has not taken a position on the bill, he said.
"There are a number of studies that show there is no significant difference between someone taught online, and there are others that show there is. There's no clear answer, and that's why it's going to be a challenge as they look at this policy change," he said.
Change is one thing, but this bill would be too much change too quickly, said Sheryl Roy, who teaches at the driver education program at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow.
"If you're looking at changing things," she said at the hearing, "you really need to look at maybe incorporating online, and keeping the testing, but as soon as you take away the individual one-on-one in the car from a professional who's been doing this for a long time and give it to some parents who may not be very good with their own students, then you're putting the safety of all of us at risk."
Roy said she is against the legislation for several reasons, but not because, as supporters of the bill claimed, she's afraid for her job. Parents might be well-intentioned, but even the ones who are skilled drivers don't have training in how to teach, she said.
And to offset the cost of the course, most insurance carriers offer discounts of up to 10 percent for teens and young adults who complete driver education. Whether teens who take driver education online would face higher insurance rates is unknown and, for now, unknowable, said Jeff Foy, who owns the Foy Insurance Group's six offices in the state, including one in Pembroke.
Insurance rates are based on prior losses, so "until we develop data from students who have taken class online, we just won't know," he said.
The bill authorizing online driver education is awaiting a vote from the House Transportation committee. Chairman Rep. Sherman Packard of Londonderry said some committee members are working with the bill sponsors on amendments.
One would limit the driving instruction to a parent or guardian, not any licensed adult over age 30; another would address a verification process to ensure parents are appropriately trained and properly document the training they give their students.
"Really, we had the same concerns when the bill came before us five or six years ago," he said. "I will take a look and see what they bring forward. I'm not going to make any predetermination."
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or email@example.com.)