When you were a teenager, would you have wanted your parents to administer the official test for you to get your driver's license? Now let's flip that scenario around to all of you parents. If you had the option of teaching your kids to drive and the responsibility of administering their official driving test, would you do it? If you answered yes, you might want to consider moving to Texas.
That's because the state legislature there has proposed a bill, HB 409, that would give Texas teens and their parents the option of skipping the driver's license testing facilities altogether and instead completing the driving test at home.
Rep. James White, a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives, sponsored the bill in an effort to alleviate long lines and overcrowding at the Department of Public Services (DPS) facilities, which administer driving tests and issue licenses. Shortly after its introduction, White told Fox KTVU in Austin that the state already trust parents to make the right decisions for their children. Therefore, he believes, there isn't any extra risk in allowing parents to administer driving tests.
How the Law Works Now
The driver's ed procedure currently requires 32 hours of classroom time and 44 hours of hands-on driving experience, and those requirements would remain under this bill. Until 2009, parents were allowed to administer the test, but the bill was repealed by lawmakers who thought that policy was too dangerous.
In 2014, lawmakers made an attempt to change the law to allow driving schools to give the final driving test, but that approach had a few problems. First, not every family has access to a private driving school, particularly families living in rural areas. And private driving schools are expensive. Second, not every school is certified to administer the final test.
HB 409 wants to change that. It says in part:
In other words, the Texas DPS would continue administering driving tests, but if the bill passes (it requires a yes vote from two-thirds of the members elected to each house), the idea is that it would deal with far fewer of them. If the bill is successful, it will take effect Sept. 1, 2019.
Teens and Crashes
We spoke to Rep. White, about why he felt the need to write the bill. In Texas, like many states, they have a graduated driver's license program, he explains. It ensures teens have plenty of time behind the wheel under a variety of driving conditions. He also points out that prior to 2009, the state's licensing procedure for teens was the same as what he's proposing in HB 409. He's simply trying to make the Texas DPS more efficient by enabling parents to opt out of the current system. "This is not something new in Texas," White says.
White provided data from the Texas Department of Health showing crash statistics for teen drivers for the fiscal years 2011 through 2016. The chart shows the total number of student drivers for each year, broken down by students who attended commercial or private driving schools, those who trained through their public school course, and those who were taught by their parents. Let's look at the most recent statistics, for 2016:
- The total collision rate for all Texas student drivers (158,364) was 13,492, or 8.52 percent
- From commercial driving schools (83,657 students) there were 7,310 collisions, or 8.74 percent of those who graduated
- From public schools (6,447 students) there were 549 collisions, or 8.51 percent of those who graduated
- From parent-taught students (68,260) there were 5,633 collisions, or 8.25 percent of those who graduated
In other words, fewer parent-taught novice drivers were involved in collisions than those who trained in a public or private driver's education course. Data going back from 2014 to 2011 shows the same trend, though in 2015, students from public schools have a slightly lower collision rate.
"Based on the impact it's had on the lines [at DPS], and looking at the data, there's literally no difference as far as safety," White says. "So even if you look at these crashes involving teen drivers, there's really no data saying who was the cause of the crash. So just because a crash happens with a teen driver, doesn't necessarily mean that the teen driver is the cause of the crash."
What Do Parents Think?
Still, concerns remain. One opponent of the bill is Debbie Callahan of the Texas Professional Driver Education Association. Callahan told ABC KTRK in Houston that "parents are not trained to be instructors, they're not trained to know the road rules, road signs and correct bad behavior."
One Texas parent we spoke to agrees the bill is a bad idea. Ryan St. Don, from Granbury, recently helped his 16-year-old son Trevor earn his driver's license. Trevor's school doesn't offer driver's education, so the St. Dons' options were to pay for a private course or act as Trevor's teachers. Trevor got his permit at 15, and then St. Don taught Trevor the rules of the road and logged his progress as required by state procedure. After Ryan met the state's requirements for driver's ed, the St. Dons took Trevor to a state testing facility.
"We got his permit so he had a full year to drive with us, so we were confident sending him out," St. Don says. "We had to keep logs of how much he was driving at night, how many highway hours, city driving, stuff like that. I helped him, we set up cones in parking lots for three-point turns, parallel parking, all that stuff."
Would St. Don have given Trevor his driving test if he had the option?
"Absolutely not," he says. "I think a kid knowing they have to take a test with someone else keeps them accountable, makes them want to keep practicing, and logging all their hours. I wanted an outsider."
For now, Texas' approach to teen driver licensing appears to be unique, and it's hard to see more states taking this approach. If the bill does not pass, the state budget might need to incorporate funds for more test centers. If the bill does pass, it'll be interesting to see if other states follow Texas' lead, and if the safety data remains consistent.