Unlike public schools, commercial driving schools are regulated by the Illinois secretary of state and cannot reduce the required six hours of instructor-supervised street driving with training on simulators and ranges.
Responding to the Tribune's findings, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said he will introduce legislation in the spring that would prohibit public schools from using simulators and practice ranges as substitutes for instructor-supervised driving on streets.
His proposals also include doubling the time a teen must carry a learner's permit, to six months from three, and imposing a 10 p.m. night driving restriction for 16-year-old drivers. Illinois law prohibits 16-year-olds from driving after 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and after midnight on weekends.
Experts contend that both measures increase crucial, adult-supervised driving for teens and limit their vulnerability to dangerous night driving.
"We go to the funerals for these young people, and people pour out their hearts," White said, "and we don't do anything about it. I want to do something."
A spokeswoman for the state board welcomed White's suggestion, noting "we will want to look very closely in this area."
Over the years, the number of teens taking driver's education through commercial schools has increased, said Hale Gammill, executive director of The Driving School Association of the Americas Inc. About 60 percent of teens, or about 1.5 million, now go to commercial driving schools in the U.S., compared with about 25 percent of teens in the early 1970s.
Public school driver's ed teachers have contended that commercial schools are sausage factories concerned mostly with making money by pushing through as many students as quickly as possible, with little regard for effective teaching.
Gammill said private driving schools often are more closely monitored than public schools. He also noted that the "biggest pool of teachers we have" is of instructors who also teach driver's education in the public schools. He said commercial schools tailor instruction to the abilities of the driver. Public schools cannot.
It remains unclear whether either method, public school driver's education or commercial driving schools, makes teens safer drivers. Both are held to the same basic standards established in 1949, six hours of behind the wheel training and 30 hours in the classroom.
Colleen Mann, 15, of Westmont is nearing completion of her driver's education with a commercial driving school. In Park Ridge, Meredith Bonk, 16, took driver's education at her public school, Maine South High School. She got her driver's license Sept. 9.
Both said the experiences prepared them well enough to drive, but both also said they learned more by logging many hours driving with their parents. Both said the classroom experience could be boring.
"I don't think I really learned that much in the class," Mann said. "I don't really remember a lot. It was kind of boring. Nobody really paid attention."
White to propose legislation enforcing on-road instruction
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