Go back to the time the Boomers were learning to drive and it was all very hands-on. To keep the peace, long-suffering parents gave into demands they teach their kids to drive. In practice, this meant the brave or foolhardy sat in the passenger seat while their children scared them. Those who lacked the moral fiber, paid for their children to have lessons. There were few barriers to gaining a driver’s license. The people who administered the tests would sometimes remember to add the odd theory question. Driving round the block without hitting anyone or anything usually justified a pass. This was a laid-back era.
Today, technology rules and represents both a benefit and a barrier to learner drivers. By moving the theory test online, it’s possible to ask a significant number of questions and provide instant feedback on pass or fail. This is a real barrier to gaining the permit or license (depending on age and the state of residence). People taking the test actually have to know the local laws and regulations. Not surprisingly, quite a significant percentage of people fail the first time round. They underestimate the difficulty of the questions and the spread of knowledge required. This suits most states because they are increasingly alarmed at the number of young people who injured and kill themselves and other road users. The majority of states now have graduated programs which makes it more difficult for teens to get unrestricted licenses.
But the more interesting developments come in the availability of online training videos, virtual enactments of how to react if you get caught in icy conditions and skid, and the use of driving simulators to teach the basics of driving techniques. There’s a certain irony in all this because, if you talk to road safety experts, they will line up as one and tell you the presence of mobile technology in the vehicle is a dangerous distraction. Yet, in Texas, you can learn to drive using an iPhone app. Aceable has had its driver education course approved by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Of course we all know of the big simulators that use real cars and offer an experience not unlike the flight simulators, e.g. at the University of Buffalo in New York. This has the key advantage both of realism and the opportunity to expose learners to completely different sets of road conditions. During summer, they can learn to drive on snow or to drive on standing water without aquaplaning. But if we look just a little into the future, we can foresee the use of technology such as the Oculus Rift 3D gaming headset to immerse drivers in a driving situation and let them figure out how to avoid the collision or crash.
This is the time for using technology constructively to teach people to drive more responsibly. Or we could just sit back and do nothing. After all, Google is promising self-driving cars on all roads by 2020. Once this happens, we can just ban teens from ever learning to drive.