Picking the winner of our first ever scholarship contest was a difficult endeavor. We received a high number of quality entries from aspiring college students across the country, and we’re proud to see that the next generation has such a bright future.
Cecilia Zugel may not have won our grand prize, but her exemplary entry deserves recognition nonetheless. In her essay, she highlights how a lack of quality, comprehensive, and accessible driver safety education is creating a generation of motorists who aren’t well educated about the rules of the road and local driving laws. She also posits practical solutions for this unfortunately prevalent problem.
When discussing unsafe driving today, people are obsessed with making phones the enemy—the objects that cause the majority of car accidents in the United States. While cell phone use causes distracted driving and is undoubtedly one of the biggest issues for drivers, constant media coverage and continual complaints about texting and driving can cause Americans to forget that there are more reasons for unsafe driving, with one of the most overlooked being the fact that some drivers are simply not well educated about the rules of the road. This issue often begins in driver’s education classrooms, but can also stem from governments’ inabilities to communicate new and changing laws to citizens. In order to reduce the number of road accidents in the United States and promote safe driving, governments need to crack down on both distracted and uneducated driving by introducing and enforcing national standards for student drivers, by better informing citizens of driving laws, and by monitoring local driving schools and making sure that students are being properly educated on how to drive safely; likewise, young individuals must share their knowledge of the road and set a good example for other drivers, and adults should give teens a realistic image of how to approach the responsibilities that come with driving.
First of all, the government needs to set and enforce nationwide standards for what young drivers should be learning. The reasoning for nationwide standardization of driver’s education courses is simple—young drivers often drive out of their own state on college visits or family vacations. The fact that many teens drive in other states means that when some states set their standards for student drivers lower than other states’ standards, they are increasing the likelihood of their teen drivers getting in an accident or committing a traffic violation in a different state. This issue follows people into adulthood; if a driver grows up in a rural area that has less strenuous driver’s education programs and decides to move to a high-stress area like Washington, D. C., that driver is at an extremely high risk for an accident and puts others around them at risk as well. For this reason, the federal government needs to create clear nationwide standards that all teen drivers are expected to meet, so that they are prepared with the skills to drive wherever they go. Once the government puts forth a nationwide standard for what young drivers need to know, it must enforce that standard. In most states, you can miss several questions on the written or in-car driving exam and still pass, but when the test is about such a high-risk activity as driving, it makes sense to force teens to learn all of the material; teachers should not be encouraging students to finish the course quickly and do the minimum work to pass the test, but should continue instructing their students and have them retake the driving exam until students score perfectly, because one mistake on the road could cost someone’s life. If the government enforces the necessity of getting a perfect score on nationwide standardized exams for young drivers, teens will be prepared to drive anywhere at any time, and will understand the rules of the road instead of rushing through driver’s education classes in their excitement to drive.
On the state level, governments need to be clear about their specialized driving laws and any changes that may be made to those laws, because many people don’t keep up with their own state’s driving regulations. For example, I recently learned that if someone drives over 80 miles per hour in Virginia, that person is automatically a reckless driver no matter how far over the speed limit they are going. In places where the speed limit is 70 or 75 miles per hour, this law limits drivers from going even a few miles per hour over the speed limit without serious consequences, but I had never heard a word about the law at school, from my friends or colleagues, or in any driver’s education class. Similarly, I once discovered that for teens, operating a cell phone in any manner—even if one is talking with a hands-free device—is illegal in Virginia. When I asked my friends and family whether they knew about this law, they answered with a resounding “no.” Even in the context of such a hot-button topic like cell phone use, the majority of people that I asked didn’t know their own state’s policy. What’s more, even people who understood the basic law of not texting and driving weren’t sure what the phrase “texting and driving” actually meant. When people aren’t clear on laws like this, they are highly likely to use loopholes like texting at a stoplight because they believe that this action doesn’t fall into the category of “texting and driving,” making for lots of fender-bender situations due to people being unaware of their surroundings when they pull into or out of line at a stoplight. My own community’s uncertainty about state laws made me realize that states need to give citizens more frequent and direct updates about new, existing, and changing laws pertaining to driving, because people—all people, not just teens—are often unaware of important driving laws in their area or unsure how to get that information.
Locally, there is an extremely strong need for better management and standardization of driving schools, because many supposed “driving schools” are only interested in getting kids in and out quickly with no concern for what the teens learn about safety; as communities, we need to stop focusing so much on getting kids driving as soon as possible and start stressing the risks that come with being on the road, because too often, teens want to win the freedom of driving so much that they don’t stop to think about the fact that driving is a serious responsibility. In my community, teens are so excited about being able to drive that they will do anything to get on the road—several of my friends have attended “driving schools” that do not meet the minimum requirements for driver’s education classes in Virginia on the rationale that they provide the easiest and fastest way to get one’s license. The first problem with this situation is that these fake “driving schools” even exist, and the second is that the students who attend them don’t care whether or not they are actually getting a good education about how to stay safe on the road. To counteract the propagation of this unsafe culture, local communities need to keep a close eye on driving schools that are not associated with the public school system in the area, because many illegitimate “driving schools” operate with certified driving teachers who don’t actually teach to the curriculum and lie about what they are teaching students in order for teens to get their licenses faster. Additionally, schools and parents need to work to stop teens’ rose-colored obsession with driving and instead give high schoolers a more realistic idea of the large amount of responsibility that one has when behind the wheel. If local communities and trusted adults can work together to crack down on illegitimate “driving schools” and help teens understand the risks that come with driving, they can create healthier and safer driving lifestyles for their communities.
As a teen driver myself, I can contribute to a safer driving culture by keeping myself educated on driving laws and issues, having the self-control to put down my phone while driving and to not speed down roads, and encouraging others to do the same. I hope to start locally by educating others about the issues behind our county’s fake “driving schools” and spreading my own knowledge about our state’s driving laws. However, I can do more than just talk about these problems in our community—I can take action by giving the names of our faulty “driving schools” to local law enforcement officials, and I can encourage others my age not to buy in to these operations. I can also keep educated on my state’s driving laws and policies using my local DMV website, and show it to others so that there is less confusion over what is legal in our state. Lastly, I can strive to set a good example by not driving distracted and by educating others about the seriousness of paying attention to the road. By helping to combat both distracted and uninformed driving, I can do my part to make the United States a safer place to drive.
Through national standards, state communication, local regulation, and the initiatives of teens like myself, we can build a safer country and stop the plagues of distracted, uninformed, and irresponsible driving. It may seem like a big task, but if everyone does their small part, we will be well on our way to a safer America for everyone on the road.