The drivers' education simulator lab in Des Plaines, Ill., seems straight from the 1970s: A dozen teenagers tucked into low-slung black vinyl drivers' seats, their steering wheels creaking in unison as a grainy movie plays and a narrator's grandfatherly voice gently asks, "Are you identifying the potential signs of conflict?"
"Don't hit that old lady crossing the street!" one student shouts sarcastically to a friend, as another snaps his gum with a loud pop, and the classroom erupts into giggles.
Seattle Public Schools no longer offers courses on drivers' education. For information about requirements for a license for teens, visit the Washington State Department of Licensing at dol.wa.gov and click on "Learn how to get a driver license."
— NWautos staff
But a suburban Chicago high school will join others around the country in updating its drivers' ed program with new simulators, featuring 3-D interactive technology that teaches teenagers far more modern dangers of driving — particularly talking on cellphones and texting behind the wheel.
The upgrade at Maine West High School comes as safety experts worry that many schools are ill-equipped to teach teenagers the realities of the modern road. Budget cuts have forced some high schools, including those in Seattle Public Schools, to eliminate drivers' education classes in recent years. For those that still provide instruction in school, financial concerns are leading many to make do with the old simulator systems.
The new simulators can cost $10,000 to $50,000 per unit, but some experts say they are by far the safest way for teenagers to practice key skills and develop safe habits.
"All the preaching in the world does not teach a teen driver as much as asking them to text while they're behind the wheel in a simulator, and they 'crash' into the car in front of them, and see and hear the windshield shatter on the screen," says Donald Fisher, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Fisher says researchers examining why the risk of motor-vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than any other age group — and the leading cause of death for American teenagers — cite studies that suggest new drivers are not more at risk because they are "careless." Instead, the studies say, the drivers are "clueless" because of their lack of experience behind the wheel.
"I call it the Lake Wobegon Effect — everyone learning to drive believes they are above average," says Fisher. "But we now know that if you're texting and driving, you are 23 times more likely to crash, which is horrifying."
While many states advocate graduated driver-licensing programs as a way to reduce accidents involving teenagers — for example, requiring a specific number of hours behind the wheel, imposing curfews and limiting the number of passengers — some experts suggest restrictions alone are not enough.
"Graduated driver licensing is only delaying the inevitable," says Wade Allen, the technical director at Systems Technology Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif., and a driver-training researcher for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Allen is searching for schools to participate in a pilot program financed through a CDC grant that would upgrade their computer labs with desktop driver-training and simulation software. After the study ends, the system would cost about $2,100 per computer.
"It's pretty pathetic that we still have students working on the old simulators, where they're all looking at the same screen," says Allen, whose research will study the effectiveness of desktop driver-simulation systems in reducing crashes.
"Technology has changed so much over the years," says Jodi Franzen, a drivers' education teacher at Maine West. "Now, if a student hits a guardrail, the new simulator will immediately stop them from continuing to drive, and they'll hear sirens, just like they've had an accident. It's really amazing."