At a time when teen-driving experts maintain that young drivers need more supervised practice behind the wheel, schools across Illinois and the country have been slashing valuable street driving with instructors to save money, a three-month Tribune investigation has found.

Though six hours of instructor-supervised driving is the benchmark for driver's education across the U.S., in practice, Illinois public schools give tens of thousands of teens as little as 1 hour and 40 minutes to 3 hours of street driving, the Tribune analysis found.

Instead, students are earning street driving credit through less-expensive practice on indoor simulators and converted parking lots. Even an hour of practice on a street satisfies Illinois' driver's education requirements. Of the 10 states with the largest school populations, only Florida has a weaker standard, the Tribune found.

It is part of a driver's education system in disarray across the U.S.--a patchwork of guidelines, with little monitoring in some states, including Illinois, and little consensus on what works best in training teens to be safe. The system, for the most part, has remained the same since 1949, while the way teens learn has undergone dramatic change in the age of computers, cell phones and iPods.

Meanwhile, car crashes have been the No. 1 killer of teens for decades, taking 5,000 to 6,000 young lives each year.

"What I would do with the model as it's set up right now is throw it out and start all over again,'' said Rob Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina.

`We can only do so much'

Even veteran driver's education instructors acknowledge that the system, withered by the federal government's lack of interest and investment, is not what it should be.

"What I tell parents is that it is a skeleton program that they can build on," said John Papa, driver's education coordinator at Lake Park High School in Roselle and a driver's ed teacher for 31 years. "We can only do so much with them in 18 weeks."

Like most states, Illinois requires six hours of "practice driving" for teens in public schools, a requirement that already is considered insufficient. In addition to those requirements, teen drivers also must log 50 hours of adult-supervised driving before obtaining their license. Many researchers contend that 50 to 100 hours or more of adult-supervised driving is crucial to making teens safe drivers.

But districts follow obscure state rules permitting them to substitute time on simulators and off-street driving ranges for as many as five hours of supervised practice on real roads.

In its analysis, the Tribune interviewed driver's education administrators and instructors in 30 school districts representing city, suburban and Downstate programs that teach more than 35,000 students to drive.

Half of them said they used simulators, ranges or both to reduce street driving time.

The Chicago Public Schools system reported shaving the most street driving time by using simulators and driving ranges.

One driving administrator, Geoffrey Porter, said about 20 percent of his students get two 50-minute drives. The rest get three, four or five drives.

Seven of the 10 states surveyed also allow simulators, ranges or both to substitute for street driving, the Tribune found, with Florida having no state standard for instructor-supervised street driving.

Illinois districts have options: If they use simulators, teens must drive at least 3 hours on the street; if ranges are used, 2 hours; if simulators and ranges are used, only 1 hour of street-driving is required--the weakest standard except for Florida.

Simulators have controls like real cars. Teens practice driving at the correct speed, signaling, turning and other skills while watching a car traveling on a roadway on the screen.

Simulators enable larger districts to handle "a bunch of kids in a cheaper way," said Mike Patterson, a driving teacher at United Township High School in East Moline, which does not use simulators. "I think that is part of the reason that we have as many crashes involving young kids that we do."