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Would you learn how to drive from the Internet?

By Autumn Cafiero Giusti

It used to be that taking driver’s ed meant packing into a classroom full of restless teenagers and watching hours upon hours of safety films.

But these days, more driver’s education students are turning to their computers and smartphones and opting to complete their coursework from home.

An increasing number of driver’s education programs are making at least part of their coursework available online. Some are even offering courses through a mobile app.

This driver’s ed evolution has raised questions as to whether online classes are as effective as the classroom for preparing teens to get behind the wheel.

Safety experts and driver’s education providers say there are pros and cons to taking these classes online.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Patrick May, vice president of sales and marketing for iDriveSmart, a driver’s education program based in Rockville, Md., taught entirely by active and retired police officers. “It helps with scheduling more than anything else, and it’s an efficient way of delivering information. The potential negative is it’s not the same experience as sitting in a classroom with a live, engaged instructor having an interactive conversation.”

Austin-based startup Aceable is offering a full driver’s ed course on a mobile app. Blake Garrett, founder and CEO of Aceable, believes in the value of online classes, but with some caveats.

“Online can be equally, if not more effective than in person,” he says.

But in surveying some of the other online courses on the market, Garrett says he’s seen many programs that haven’t been revamped in awhile.

“It’s basically like a PowerPoint that has been moved online. It’s not interactive and doesn’t play into cognitive learning. So I think there are a lot of ways to improve to make it a more engaging experience,” he says.

Convenience factor

Online classes offer a lot of conveniences to students and their families. For one, online driver’s ed providers have the ability to offer lower price points than classroom courses. That can be important for families who are about to take on college tuition bills. “That lets companies like us put money into improving the programs overall,” May says.

Finding a way to fit in driver’s ed classes can be difficult for busy families. May points out that states require 15 to 30 hours of instruction to complete a driver’s education program. “That’s a large time commitment to try to set aside when kids are in school and playing sports,” he says.

May believes that either type of driver’s education instruction is most effective when it’s integrated with behind-the-wheel training. The vehicle itself can become a lab to demonstrate some of these principles.

“The in-car training is invaluable. It’s a whole lot more than knowing what an accelerator does,” May says. Classroom instruction continues to be an important piece of iDriveSmart’s driver’s ed program, which invests significantly in professional instructors and pays them 2.5 times higher than competing programs do. May says that professionalism carries into the classroom and the car, and students take the instructors more seriously and as authority figures.

“Our goal isn’t to get the kid licensed. Our goal is to create safe drivers for life,” May says.

Online classes are available from iDriveSmart, and May says he’s noticed a trend to move classes online in places like Virginia and California. iDriveSmart operates in California, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

“Our philosophy is we want to give parents and kids the option to select what suits them best. But in terms of what works best for an online environment, it has to be integrated with actual in-car training. Driving a car is not a theoretical thing,” May says.

Similar results all around

Research suggests that driver’s education of any kind has little effect on teenagers becoming better drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, scientific evaluations do not support driver’s education as a mechanism for reducing crashes. Rather, immaturity and lack of experience are considered greater crash risk factors. In its Feasibility Study on Evaluating Driver Education Curriculum, the NHTSA points to its milestone study this area, tracking of teens in DeKalb County, Ga., in the 1980s. After a $4 million study involving more than 16,000 students, the NHTSA found no difference in crash risk between teens who took driver’s ed and those who didn’t.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t any evidence that teens who take driver’s ed are any less likely to get into crashes than teens who don’t take it,” says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

What has kept teens safer on the road, Rader says, is the fact that most states have enacted some form of graduated driver’s licensing laws, designed to grant young drivers their licenses in three phases. “Those have been very effective in reducing crashes,” Rader says.

Drivers first must obtain a learner’s permit for a set period, in which they need to be supervised behind the wheel by a licensed adult. In the second stage, teens are restricted from driving at night or with other teens in the car. Only after completing those two stages can teens obtain a full driver’s license.

Rader says that a large part of why graduated licensing is so effective is because of parent involvement in the process of the teen learning to drive.

“And regardless of what the state’s laws say, parents can lay down their own set of rules of the road to keep their teens safer,” Rader says.

Research suggests that parent involvement could be helping to lower the number of student collisions in Texas, even if only slightly. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the 2012 collision rate for students of parent-taught driver education was 8.5%. That’s slightly lower than the rate for students of commercial driving schools (8.95%) and public driving schools (8.84%).

Because all three collision rates are so close, however, that also suggests that any kind of driver education – whether it’s in a classroom or on a computer – could be equally effective, Garrett says.

“Apparently online and the PowerPoint way are just as effective as the classroom, but I think there are ways to get this collision rate down even more,” he says.