Ask a teenager, “what’s the first thing you’ll need to do to obtain a driver’s license,” and he’s likely to respond, “take driver’s ed. “ A staple in most New Jersey high schools for decades, driver education is considered the primary means by which all new drivers learn the rules of the road and basic vehicle operation. Driving, however, has changed dramatically since motorists first took to the road. Has driver education kept pace?

Yes and no, according to driver education teachers who responded to a statewide needs assessment conducted late last year by the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition (www.nsc.org/njteens-gdl4u). The coalition, a partnership of the National Safety Council and The Allstate Foundation, learned that while teachers are discussing “modern-day” topics like distracted driving and the state’s novice driver licensing program referred to as “GDL” (Graduated Driver Licensing), the curriculum and how it’s delivered hasn’t changed much since these same teachers were students.

The “30 and 6 model” – 30 hours of classroom theory, six hours of behind the wheel instruction – first introduced in the 1940s, remains the standard in most New Jersey high schools. (Although in-car training is probably provided by a commercial driving school, rather than the teen’s high school.) It’s also likely that the primary textbook is the New Jersey Driver‘s Manual and that students – typically sophomores – spend a marking period reviewing the content to prep for the state written exam.

A new approach

Drivers EdThat has prompted the coalition, composed of more than 100 individual and organizational members including classroom teachers, to call for a new approach to driver education. From taking the driver’s manual out of the classroom and making it required summer reading to getting teens out on the local roads they typically drive to identify hazards likely to trip them up, educators across the state are reinventing how they teach driver’s ed.  

Teachers are also recognizing the importance of actively involving parents in their teen’s driver education as well as giving students the opportunity to develop and implement peer-to-peer educational programs that address car crashes, the number one killer of young people 15-20 years of age. And the topic of teen driving is going inter-disciplinary as teachers trained in other subject areas -- English, math, science, history, media -- are getting in on the act.  

“I had 30 hours to ensure that my students understood what it meant to be a good, safe driver,” said Maureen Nussman, a retired health and driver ed teacher. “I wasn’t going to spend that time preparing them to pass the test.  I engaged my students in discussion and hands-on activities that prompted an understanding of the crash risks for novice drivers and how to address them. We also talked extensively about the GDL program and how and why it works. They weren’t exactly fans of GDL, but by the end of the marking period they were fully aware of the positive impact it’s having on their safety.”

Drive SafelyNussman, who now serves as the coalition’s volunteer driver education coordinator, shares her innovative lesson plans with peers and has posted them on njdrivereducation.com. The website, which was developed for Garden State educators by the Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey (BIANJ) with funding from the N.J. Division of Highway Traffic Safety (both are coalition members), includes links to curriculum and lesson plans, free resources, speakers, crash data, and more. “If you’re teaching driver’s ed and not leveraging this website, you should be,” added Nussman. “It’s loaded with tools to help you breathe new life into your program and engage your students.”

To enhance their programs, teachers statewide are also tapping into two other websites – njteendriving.com and ugotbrains.com (also developed and maintained by BIANJ). Njteendriving.com, built for parents and the community-at-large, addresses the crash risk for teens and explains how and why the state’s GDL program works to address that risk. Ugotbrains.com provides a forum for teens to talk about why they’re crashing (nearly 38,000 New Jersey teens were involved in crashes in 2011) and promote positive, peer-to-peer exchange.

Bolstering professional development

In New Jersey, a teacher must be certified by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) and possess a valid instructor identification card to instruct driver education. That requires the completion of an approved three-credit course, offered by Rowan University, New Jersey City University and The College of New Jersey, along with ongoing professional development. The latter, according to teachers who responded to the coalition’s needs assessment, can be difficult to fulfill.

That’s why the coalition began partnering with the New Jersey Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (NJAHPERD) more than two years ago to offer driver education and traffic safety-related training at the organization’s annual conference held in Long Branch each February. The one-day, five-workshop track, which is approved for continuing education credits, has included sessions on how and why graduated driver licensing works, bolstering parent engagement, finding and using free programs and resources, developing interactive lesson plans, leveraging teen-led programs, and other topics.  

Coalition members will also facilitate two workshops on curriculum and interdisciplinary teaching at the 2013 NJEA Convention in Atlantic City. Both will be held on Friday, Nov. 8. Discussions are also underway to develop a series of 60- to 90- minute live webinars that will enable teachers to conveniently bolster their knowledge of specific driver education, traffic safety and teen driving topics.

Improving communication

Drivers EdThe coalition is also working to ensure that driver education professionals are up to date on driver licensing requirements and motor vehicle laws. The MVC has agreed to work directly with Nussman to answer questions from teachers as well as share information. Also, an updated driver’s manual is in production and the coalition, with the assistance of a cadre of teachers, provided input on revisions to the written exam. Paper copies of the manual will once again be made available to high schools starting this school year and the new exam is scheduled to be sent to high schools in mid-October.

The needs assessment confirmed that educators want “better communication” and “access to current and accurate licensing, motor vehicle statute and general teen driving information.” That prompted the coalition to begin disseminating e-updates to the 200 teachers who responded to the needs assessment.  Recognizing, however, that there are approximately 3,000 driver education professionals in the state, the coalition is working to expand this network. To receive free e-updates, email mnussman@aol.com and include “DE update” in the subject line.

The e-update has teachers talking and sharing. Barbara Muller, who has been teaching driver education at Cresskill High School for 33 years, is compiling favorite lesson plans on njdrivereducation.com. Plans are underway to expand this lesson plan sharing at the 2014 NJAHPERD Convention.

Leveraging innovative programs

The coalition is partnering with New Jersey education professionals in both secondary schools and colleges/universities to implement innovative programs involving parents and teen.  Each is receiving rave reviews not only from within New Jersey, but also from educators and teen safe driving advocates across the nation.

Drivers EdOne is the Share the Keys (STKs) parent-teen orientation program developed by the N.J. Division of Highway Traffic Safety and Kean University.  Based on parental influence research conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and others, the facilitated program focuses on four key behavioral objectives essential for parents: understanding New Jersey’s graduated driver license program and effectively enforcing it at home, serving as good role models, increasing supervised practice with their novice driver, and controlling the keys.  (To learn more, visit www.njteendriving.com/share-the-keys.)

Currently, there are more than 200 facilitators – many of whom are high school teachers – trained to deliver the 75-minute program. Stacey Trimble, a health and physical education teacher who instructs driver education at Millville High School (Gloucester County), was trained in 2012. “It took only one professional day to get trained and I received everything I needed to facilitate the program,” she said. “I encourage other teachers, even those who don’t teach driver’s ed, to take advantage of the free training. Since driving is a life skill, it makes sense for everyone to get involved.”

Trimble, Millville’s 2013 teacher of the year, is also quick to point out the importance of the parent-teen program. “Many parents think once their teen has completed driver’s ed, they’re now ready to drive. STK helps families understand that driver’s ed is just the beginning.”

The program promotes the use of a parent-teen driving agreement, which families try out with the facilitator’s guidance. “This is a great tool that really gets everyone talking,” said Trimble. “For instance, parents want to know how often they should be driving with their teen and whether it’s safe to drive in inclement weather. I tell them drive every chance they get and to get their teens on the road in the rain and snow.”

Attendance at the STKs program is now required in some New Jersey high schools. Some require students to attend the program with a parent to obtain a parking permit once they’re licensed drivers. Other schools host teen driving nights, with STKs as the centerpiece, and offer incentives (i.e., a raffle to win driver training or practice sessions at a race track, gas cards, AAA memberships) or extra credit to bolster attendance.

Share the Keys is having an impact. A six month follow-up study of parents who participated in the program, conducted by Kean University, found that 84 percent say they now understand GDL and enforce the nighttime driving and passenger restrictions. Sixty-three percent also report controlling  their teens’ access to the car keys, while 47 percent spend seven hours or more a month practice driving with their teen.

Getting coaches on the team

Another coalition goal is to see driver education expanded from a single marking period course to a year-round initiative. That’s why the coalition developed a program to engage coaches (or any adult serving in an advisory or mentor role) in helping to foster dialogue about teen safe driving.

Prompted by the fatal car crash that claimed the lives of four Mainland High School (Atlantic County) student-athletes and injured four others in 2011, “A Game Plan for Talking to Your Student Athletes About New Jersey’s Graduated Driver License Program (GDL Game Plan),” outlines the risks for teens (both drivers and their passengers), how and why the state’s GDL program works, and what teachers and coaches can do to help their students adhere to the program’s lifesaving provisions. The four-page brochure, developed in partnership with the N.J. State Interscholastic Athletic Association, also includes action steps to help coaches integrate GDL into their “game plan” and sample safe driving language that can be inserted into a student-athlete code of conduct.

Free, 10-15 minute GDL/teen driving briefings are available for teachers, coaches and administrators in conjunction with district in-service trainings and/or faculty, coaches or league meetings. To review the GDL Game Plan, visit http://www.njsiaa.org/sites/default/files/document/TeenSafeDrivingGDLGamePlan2011.pdf. To schedule a briefing, call 908-684-1036 or email pfischer550@comcast.net.

Building champion schools

Drivers EdThe U Got Brains Champion Schools Program (CSP) is another school-based initiative that’s helping to create year-round interest in teen safe driving and is winning rave reviews from educators.

Initiated in 2011 by BIANJ, the program provides teens the opportunity to develop and implement peer-to-peer education campaigns addressing issues they face on the road.  Working with an advisor, who may or may not be a driver education teacher (two-thirds were not this past year), the teens receive a $1,000 stipend to develop and implement their programs. Additionally, they compete for the grand prize, a driving simulator for their school, donated by founding sponsor and coalition member New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company (NJM). (To learn more visit, http://www.ugotbrains.com/champion-schools)

The program has grown from 19 schools in the first year to 28 in 2012 and 55 this past year. The Champion Schools Program “has been one of the major highlights of my 34-year teaching career in New Jersey public schools,” says TV-production teacher Ava Annese, who retired in June from Emerson Junior/Senior High School (Hudson County).

A three-year CSP participant, Emerson focused on distracted driving with a particular emphasis on loud music. The students’ campaign dubbed “Victims of Volume” included a series of teen safe driving public service announcements that involved the school district, the community, the Emerson Police Department, and a local car dealership. “CSP taught my students more than just being aware of the importance of teen driving safety, but how they could make a difference in the lives of their friends and [others] who watched the PSAs and participated in the programs we brought to the school,” said Annese.

The highlight of CSP is an annual showcase. At the 2013 event, more than 500 teens, educators and advocates gathered to view the campaigns and learn which schools earned top honors. “Being at the showcase with my students was amazing,”  said Kearny High School’s Miryam Kass. A guidance counselor and the high school’s SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) Chapter advisor, Kass noted that her students learned a lot from the other schools and are using that to build upon their distracted driving campaign.

Columbia High School in Maplewood-South Orange, Essex County, was one of the grand champions. Columbia’s entry promoted the student-founded and administered “Safe Rides MAPSO” program, which provides a safe ride home for teens to help them refrain from violating two key provisions of the state’s GDL program, driving late at night and with multiple passengers. Since its inception more than 18-months ago, MAPSO has provided safe rides to more 1,000 teens.

Lenape Regional High School (four high schools serving eight communities in Burlington County) was the other 2013 grand champion. The district’s 2013 entry, “Heads Up - Eyes Forward!” campaign included social media, a music video parody of Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit, “Call Me Maybe,” “Just Drive” t-shirts, X the TXT educational events, a YouTube video news package, local business partnerships, window clings, and more. The students also forged a partnership with the N.J. Department of Transportation.

While Lenape and Columbia High Schools were each awarded a driving simulator along with a $10,000 prize (for use with after-prom or graduation parties and a distracted driving assembly) courtesy of NJM, every school went home a winner in 2013. To commemorate its 100th anniversary, NJM donated a simulator to the other 53 high schools, an investment of more than $700,000.

“What a wonderful way to end my teaching career, knowing that the driver’s education teacher and students will be able to enhance their instruction with behind the wheel practice,” said Emerson’s Annese. The full-cab, state-of-the-art simulators feature technology that allows novice drivers to gain experience addressing a variety of challenges before they take to the road.

More peer-to-peer education

Like NJM, DCH Auto Group (also a coalition member) is also investing in driver education. Since 2008, the auto retailer has been partnering with SADD to help launch and support chapters in New Jersey high schools. Currently, there are 16 DCH-sponsored SADD chapters in New Jersey. Students, with the support of teachers and DCH employees, are working to raise awareness among their peers about the dangers of distracted driving, the importance of graduated driver licensing and the significant role parents play in their teen’s driver education. (To learn more, visit www.dchtsdf.org/sadd.aspx.)

“No matter what we ask, DCH is there to help,” said Kearny’s Kass. “They give us a $2,500 grant every year to send two students and the chapter advisor to the national SADD conference. They’ve also invited our students to speak about their efforts to educate their peers at their annual golf outing and are helping us produce a PSA on the dangers of distracted walking, a problem that my chapter members feel is putting their peers at risk.”  

Math teacher Lori Obdyke advises the DCH-sponsored SADD Chapter at Old Bridge High School. “I never imagined that we’d get so much help from DCH,” she said. “They not only provide financial support, but they’re truly committed to helping us help our students.”

Obdyke, who has been teaching for 22 years, believes that what her students learn through their involvement in SADD is sticking with them long after they graduate. “Math is important and they need it to graduate and be successful, but what they get out of their involvement in SADD is life-changing.”

SADD according to Kass is becoming the “up and coming” club at Kearny High. “We have over 30 clubs in the school, but there’s no doubt SADD is gaining in popularity. We used to be pretty small, but now students in all grade levels are involved.”

Pam Fischer is a transportation safety consultant and leader of the N.J. Teen Safe Driving Coalition. A Long Valley, N.J. resident, she served as director of the N.J. Division of Highway Traffic Safety from 2007-10 and chaired the N.J. Teen Driver Study Commission. She is the author of two national publications on teen driving and is a frequent speaker at state, regional and national conferences.