As a parent of two teenage drivers, I’ve had more than my share of anxiety about handing over the keys for a night on the town. Some 3,000 teen drivers die in crashes every year, and teens are four times more likely to get in accidents than older drivers.

And it’s certainly not just my kids — it’s other young drivers. According to Reuters, more than one in five U.S. teenagers never gets any form of driver’s education, which is often 30 hours of classroom study and six hours behind the wheel. Fewer states are requiring driver's education, and this is going to have consequences.

We’ve been schooling kids in driving for more than a century, but it’s no longer always part of public education, and that’s both a shame and dangerous.

There is no substitute for actual driving instruction.

There is no substitute for driving instruction behind the wheel. (Photo: AAA)

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in a report issued this month, participation in driver’s ed is declining nationally, and this means more car crashes and more convictions for vulnerable teen drivers. Having taken driver’s ed reduces the likelihood of a crash by 4.3 percent, and convictions by almost 40 percent, AAA said.

Back in the day, dealers supplied driver's ed cars to high schools.

Back in the day, dealers supplied driver's ed cars to high schools. (Photo: Delaware state archives)

One of the problems is that a lot of high schools aren’t offering driver’s ed anymore. According to USA Today, “About 15 percent of eligible students take high school driver’s ed compared with 95 percent in the 1970s.”

Remember knocking down cones as the horrified instructor looked on?

Remember knocking down cones as the horrified instructor looked on? (Photo: AAA)

It was a rite of passage for me. I recall that the basketball coach was also the driving teacher, and I remember him barking orders at me in the school parking lot. He also sat us down in the classroom, and I vividly recall our viewing of the standard “scared straight” film of the period, "Signal 30." It was “educational” in the best sense. And thanks to the magic of YouTube, here it is, in all its overripe 1950s Technicolor brilliance:

By the time my daughters were in high school, driver’s ed was no longer offered as a free course. That’s the case despite state law that requires it for 16- or 17-year-old licensed drivers. The alternative is private driving schools, which are expensive — one I checked was $400 for eight lessons. We paid something like $800 all told for my daughters, plus another $200 or so for driving tests and licensing fees.

And here's another interesting point: Reuters reports that there are socioeconomic, cultural and racial dimensions to this issue. Driving schools, in addition to being expensive, tend to be concentrated in affluent neighborhoods. In states with no driver’s ed requirements, only three in 10 Hispanic students go through any form of training, and among the groups with the highest rates of non-attendance are African-Americans, kids with poor grades, and kids whose schools are in disadvantaged areas. In states with a requirement, eight of 10 take driver’s ed. Maybe the other 20 percent opts out of driving altogether.

AAA cheerfully predicted a “renaissance” in driver’s ed opportunity, but that was back in 2009, and I’m not seeing it. But we need to bring it back, and once more make it available to everybody via the public school classroom.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

The dangerous decline in driver's ed
Public schools need to step up and teach our kids to drive, because expensive private lessons aren't enough.