As Washington’s experience with driver’s education demonstrates, the private sector is not always more efficient than government at delivering public services.
Now, state lawmakers are considering changes that will help make driver’s ed more accessible for young drivers. With Washington roads becoming more dangerous and with the rate of traffic fatalities increasing, data support the need for changes.
In Washington, driver’s ed courses are required for 16- and 17-year-olds to acquire a license, but not for those 18 and older. Statistics show that young drivers are responsible for a disproportionate number of crashes — particularly those who never passed a traffic-safety course.
“Young drivers who don’t receive driver’s ed are unfortunately some of the most likely in the whole state to be involved in the fatal and serious crashes,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
According to The Seattle Times, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission estimates those who had not completed a course had a 70 percent higher rate of injury or death. Notably, people who got their license at 18 (and possibly did not pass a safety course) were 50 percent more likely to get into a crash in their first year of driving than those who got their license at 16.
Of course, we can point to many drivers older than 18 who could use some driver’s education, but it is predictable than young drivers would be more susceptible to dangerous driving habits.
Because of that, two bills in the Senate warrant consideration. SB 5583 would require that anyone 25 or younger complete a traffic-safety course before qualifying for a license. And SB 5430 would provide vouchers to anyone who cannot afford the cost of a class.
Cost is a barrier for many prospective drivers, and that is — in part — a result of previous legislative action. Beginning in 2000, lawmakers phased out public funding for driving instruction, which previously was provided through nearly every public school district in the state.
As The Seattle Times explains: “What occurred over the next two decades was a massive shift in traffic safety education from the public realm to the private, with a drop in enrollment that followed. The privatization of driver’s ed meant those without extra money — often from communities of color — couldn’t afford the chance to become a safer driver.”
Many facets of society can function more efficiently when left to the private sector without governmental meddling. Private competition for consumer dollars can foster improved services and lower prices.
But when public safety is at issue, it is sensible for the state to be involved. According to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, 15,000 fewer Washington residents took driver’s ed courses last year than in 1998. That includes instruction through either private driving schools or public schools, and the decline in courses endangers everybody on the roads.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington’s rate of traffic fatalities is well below the national level. But there still is room for improvement, and the rate of serious crashes has increased in the past two years.
State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking member of the transportation committee, questions the cost and effectiveness of the proposed bills. That is reasonable, and robust debate based on facts should occur.
But as King adds about the state’s role in driver safety, “We’ve got to do something.”