Fatal crashes prompt calls for renewed driver's ed funding

Posted September 30, 2014 4:41 p.m. EDT
Updated September 30, 2014 6:21 p.m. EDT

— Two Wake County students have died and a third was injured in recent weeks in crashes involving teen drivers. The rash of wrecks has prompted the North Carolina School Boards Association to begin lobbying for more funding for driver's education.

Under state law, anyone under age 18 who wants to drive must first take a driver's education course, either through a public school or paid for privately.

The state has, for decades, used Highway Trust Fund money to pay school districts to provide the classes, but lawmakers cut off all state funding for driver's education as of next July.

"It means a $26 million hit statewide to school districts," said Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the school boards association.

In Wake County alone, the funding cut amounts to about $3 million. Nearly 12,000 Wake County students took driver's education last year.

Michael Yarborough, a spokesman for the Wake County Public School System, said the district is looking at options to pay for driver's education, but no decisions have been made.

Lawmakers in recent years have allowed schools to charge up to $65 for the course to make up for funding cuts, but Winner said that doesn't come close to covering the actual cost of driver's education instruction, which often tops $300 per student.

After years of budget cuts, she said school districts don't have spare money to pay the difference. Districts could seek legislative approval to charge full price for driver's education, but that could keep lower-income students from taking the course.

The school boards association has asked the Child Fatality Task Force, which makes policy recommendations to lawmakers every year to reduce the number of deaths and injuries among children and teens, to call for reinstating driver's education funding in the budget.

A task force subcommittee gave the proposal favorable feedback Monday, but the full panel won't vote until November on whether to proceed with the recommendation.

"These are our youngest drivers. You want to make sure that they go through this program, that they just don't opt not to do it," Winner said. "We need to make sure that our roads – not only for them but for all of us – are as safe as possible."

Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata sounded a similar theme Tuesday when he issued a statement after the latest incident, in which a teen driver failed to stop for a stopped school bus and hit and injured a sixth-grader.

"Educating teen drivers on potential hazards behind the wheel is critical to the safety of our roadways," Tata said. "At NCDOT, we pledge to review possible safety improvements and driver's education messages with our partners at the Department of Public Instruction."

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, who oversees transportation appropriations in the state budget for the House, said in an email to WRAL News that he is certain that lawmakers will reconsider the cut to driver's education when they reconvene next year.

Meanwhile, Lt. Jeff Gordon of the State Highway Patrol said parents need to present their teen drivers with different situations to prepare them for the road.

"Take them out on the interstates, take them on rural paved roads, put them through heavy traffic, put them through situations where it's raining, so they feel comfortable in a controlled environment with you sitting beside them, instructing them on how to handle situations when they get into it," Gordon said.