UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED: NYS Is About to Make it Even Easier for Untrained Drivers to Get Licenses

Who is going to teach new drivers what to do in this situation? A human or a computer? Photo: U.S. Army
Who is going to teach new drivers what to do in this situation? A human or a computer? Photo: U.S. Army

It’s enough to give you road rage: State lawmakers are making it easier for bad drivers to get licenses by allowing student drivers to take a questionable online safety course rather than the previously mandated five-hour, instructor-taught classroom session.

Certified driving school instructors — who may be the only trained educator that students will encounter before getting their license — say that the bill approved by the state legislature earlier this summer would lower New York’s already minimal standards for driver training, unleashing untold numbers of improperly trained newbies onto the roads.

“If that course goes online, it won’t be taught as well, plain and simple,” said Patrick Sardella, a driving instructor for four decades, most recently at Allwright’s School of Driving in upstate Rochester. “With an online course, no one will even know if you were sober or paying attention when you clicked the buttons. Or maybe you got a friend to do it for you. In the classroom setting, we talk directly to people about driving.”

The bill, S3965 in the Senate and A5874 in the Assembly, would allow student drivers to take an online version of the state’s five-hour classroom instruction course currently mandated by state law before a would-be driver can sign up for a road test. The bill passed overwhelmingly in both houses (in the Senate, it was unanimous), though it is unclear if lawmakers understood the full implication of the bill, advocates say. Nonetheless, it awaits Gov. Cuomo’s expected signature.

New York State has notoriously lenient rules for getting a driver’s license, consisting of just four steps:

  • Take an easy written test to get a learner’s permit.
  • Drive for 50 hours with any adult who has a driver’s license. The adult need not have any specialized training.
  • Take the five-hour course (currently in-classroom only).
  • Pass the road test.

Some states, of course, have even easier requirements, but many throw up more hurdles. New York, unlike several other states, does not require would-be drivers to get formal driving instruction by a certified teacher. The only requirement is a note from a would-be driver’s parent testifying that the student driver operated a car for 50 hours, with 15 of those hours occurring after sunset. The official-sounding, but ultimately toothless, Certification of Supervised Driving does not even need to be notarized. It is unclear how many would-be drivers actually get behind the wheel for 50 hours.

There's no substitute for face-to-face teaching. Photo: Allwright's Driving School
There’s no substitute for face-to-face teaching. Photo: Allwright’s School of Driving.

Only 16 states allow the classroom certification course to be completed online. In New York, the goal of State Sen. Tim Kennedy’s bill to legalize online instruction is to simply make it easier for people to get past that third step.

“In today’s ever evolving technological environment, there is a steady and consistent movement toward on-line offerings of goods and services,” the bill’s cover memo explains. “Allowing these courses to be done online would provide flexibility and efficiency to this step of the licensing process. … While a classroom setting might be the preferred (or only) option for some individuals, on-line access will provide a great convenience to many.”

The bill also asserts that state DMV “has been providing … services to the public through internet based forums with great success.”

Great success, of course, is a subjective term — unless the state has statistical evidence to back up such a claim. Indeed, the only justification for putting the course online would be if there was definitive proof that online courses do a better job than in-person classes.

As you might have guessed, there is no such proof. In fact, there’s the opposite of proof.

As many drivers know, there is an existing 20-plus-year-old program called the “Point and Insurance Reduction Program” that allows drivers to lower their insurance rates or reduce the number of points on their driver’s licenses if they sit through a supervised, in-person class taught by a certified teacher.

A decade ago, state lawmakers created an online version of that defensive driving, calling it the “Internet Point and Insurance Reduction Program.” Instead of forcing bad drivers to take instruction face to face with a certified teacher, those same scofflaw New York State residents could simply click buttons on a computer for a few hours.

“Our 100 percent online format is straightforward and entertaining,” says one online ad for the course. “There is no final exam.” (Full disclosure: This reporter has taken the online course several times and can confirm that only the bit about there being no final exam is accurate.)

If you think it’s odd that the state would consider an “entertaining” and exam-free online course sufficient, you’re onto something. Before the legislature authorized the internet-based point reduction course, it actually had declared them to be insufficient.

“The regulations implementing the classroom PIRP program called for a robust, in-classroom experience,” said lawyer Benjamin Neidl, who represented a driving school that is fighting the latest online course authorization. “In order to minimize the likelihood of distraction (and preserve the effectiveness of the courses), the DMV regulations specifically forbade PIRP instruction ‘in any non-traditional classroom location (such as a house … [or] personal residence).'”

Thankfully, when it created the online version of the point-reduction program, the state legislature specifically required the DMV to assess whether the online course was, indeed, showing any success.

The problem? No evidence exists that there’s any success, said Neidl, who used the Freedom of Information Law to demand evidence from the DMV that the online course were effective. He was looking specifically for evidence that drivers with points on their licenses became measurably less likely to drive recklessly after taking the course.

The DMV “asserts that I-PIRP ‘has proven to be as effective as the classroom course’ [but] includes no scientific backup (or any backup) to that effect,” Neidl wrote to his clients in a report made available to Streetsblog.

Mostly, Neidl demanded documents that would show that the DMV was monitoring the online course providers or assessing the effectiveness of the program. Time and time again, the DMV’s answer was clear: “After a diligent search, no records exist.”

To Sardella, the absence of proof is proof: Online courses are not as effective as what he does in the classroom.

“In the classroom, we have people who have gotten DUI and want to get their license back, and they tell the kids their experience,” Sardella said, recounting one repentant drunk driver who scared teenage drivers straight. “He told the kids about how he hit someone when he was drunk and by the end of the story, everyone in the class was crying. Their eyes were as big as those big chocolate chip cookies.

“You can’t get that on the computer,” Sardella concluded.

Kennedy, the Buffalo senator pushing the online driving course bill, declined to be interviewed by Streetsblog. But he issued the following statement:

As New York evolves and technological advancements pave new paths forward, we need to ensure that our transportation systems and processes progress as well. Through this bill, we’re ensuring that pre-licensing courses are more accessible to all New Yorkers by offering an online component.

He added that some “working class New Yorkers” find it difficult to take a class that requires in-person attendance “for employment, geographic, or personal reasons.”

Sardella called the “convenience” argument “absurd.” He added that most of the states that allow online courses “are warm states where they don’t have to deal with adverse weather, or are not heavily populated, like Nebraska or Kansas.” He also pointed out that up to one-quarter of a driving school’s income comes from the in-person five-hour course — so putting the course online could put some schools out of business and have the residual effect of reducing driving instruction in the state.

But his largest — and probably the most insightful — problem with the online course is the simple fact that it can’t change someone with a bad attitude. And most teenagers, even really nice ones, believe they know things that they simply cannot know due to lack of experience or education.

“This online course will not make safer drivers out of young people who have negative attitudes,” he said. “The guy who has the negative attitude is not going to change his attitude in front of a computer. But in the classroom, that guy comes in and we talk about the law or a driving scenario and he says something wrong and I say, ‘You’re not right.’ And then the entire class gets involved, and suddenly he learns from his peers that his very strange idea about the law is actually not right. That’s his peers — not a computer.”

The Department of Motor Vehicles does not respond to requests for comment on pending legislation.

  • Joe R.

    How about we just dispense with any pretense at all about linking having a license to driving competence and make driver’s licenses available in gumball machines? That seems to be the direction we’re heading anyway.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The only requirement is a note from a would-be driver’s parent testifying that the student driver operated a car for 50 hours, with 15 of those hours occurring after sunset.”

    They recommend more, and in my house we did a lot more.

    Both kids passed the first time, one with a stick shift with a brand new clutch. Lots of Brooklyn kids flunk.

  • AMH

    He added that most of the states that allow online courses “are warm states where they don’t have to deal with adverse weather, or are not heavily populated, like Nebraska or Kansas.”

    Is there any requirement that drivers train in adverse weather (including both rain and snow) and in busy urban areas? If not, there should be.

  • Larry Littlefield

    No such requirement.

    My daughters actually trained to drive outside NY, for the younger one because you aren’t allowed to drive in NYC until age 18. We had to drive out of the city to practice.

    That’s when I realized that Brooklyn isn’t “Where New York City Begins,” it’s “Where New York City Ends.” The only borough where one is required to drive through another borough to get out of the city. Added a couple of hours to each training session.

    Then again, only a small share of the miles we have driven over the years have been in the city — mostly on our way in or out.

    And since we never had to drive to work or school, there has never been a need to drive in adverse weather either.

  • Emmily_Litella

    Watering down the currently weak standard for obtaining a driver’s license is proof that human life ain’t really so precious here. Do these legislator’s think this is popular among voters? Who or what is motivating them to do this? The average voter does not walk around grumbling about how hard it is to get a driver’s license.

  • sbauman

    Andrew Cuomo tried to eliminate the vision test for renewing a drivers license. That got shot down after two days.

    NYS appears content with people who are blind as well as untrained to be behind the wheel.

    I managed to renew the drivers license I currently hold during the two days vision tests were not required.

    Nobody has to fear being in front of me. I’ve had two successful cataract operations since then. The first operation was scheduled about a week after my license was about to expire.

  • Joe R.

    Any comments on this?

    https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/23/politics/david-koch-dead/index.html

    The Koch brothers have often been a foil in the fight to get off oil and build more public transit. With David Koch dead, half the problem is gone. This should be a message to his brother. You’re not going to live forever. In the end all that will be left of you is what you did when you were alive. Do you really want to be remembered for making things worse for your children and grandchildren?

  • MotoBX

    …or we could focus our efforts on making the road test more realistic/difficult.

    Handling a car at highway speed gives one a better sense of the physics, mechanics, and overall awareness necessary to operate a vehicle safely, yet it isn’t part of the road test.

    I understand the challenges involved, but driving in more dense environments than the road test sites requires skills that are more akin to what you develop on the highway (mostly the spatial awareness) than on the two lane roads you drive in the outer boroughs.
    Perhaps it could be done similar to the non-MSF motorcycle test where the instructor(?) follows the applicant in a car driven by a fully licensed driver (to alleviate some of the danger to the instructor). This would also make it more time consuming to actually get a license.

    I had similar feelings when I bought my first motorcycle. I had passed the MSF course easily, but had never gone above 20/25 mph. I didn’t feel completely ready for highway speed, yet was well within my rights to hop on the Taconic (thankfully south of the fun/twisty part) to get it home.

  • Jessica Graziano Waldorf

    AAA and the American Safety Council, among others, are parading around as “Non-Profits” and are pushing this bill. Out of State corporations do not care if they shut down the over 700 “mom and pop” driving schools throughout the state. This course is 40-50% of our driving school’s business and this would put my husband and I out of business.

  • OnePersonOrAnother

    This article would be a lot more compelling if at least one of the people quoted objecting to the law didn’t have a clear financial interest in keeping the current system in place…

    They may be right about the safety impact, but they’re not exactly objective observers.

  • Joe R.

    Most of the people here are for exactly that but it’s a huge political hurdle given that most many Americans consider driving a virtual birthright. I’m all in favor of training and testing which resembles that given to race car drivers. I’ve also in favor of retesting every 10 years until age 50, then every 5 years until age 65, and finally annually at age 65+.

    The general idea here is to make the test difficult enough to weed out those who would be marginal drivers because they lack the intelligence, coordination, spatial ability, or proper attitude to safely drive a motor vehicle. The retesting will ensure those who drive are still competent to do so.

    None of this precludes having much easier tests for things like scooters and mopeds. In fact, I feel any vehicle which weighs under about 75 pounds and has a top speed of 30 mph or less shouldn’t require a license at all. Those which weigh more (but no where near as much as car), or go faster, should have a much less strict licensing regimen. If people have to jump through a lot of hoops to drive a regular motor vehicle, suddenly these smaller vehicles seem a lot more attractive.

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  • Andrew

    Handling a car at highway speed gives one a better sense of the physics, mechanics, and overall awareness necessary to operate a vehicle safely, yet it isn’t part of the road test.

    On the other hand, highway driving gives one no sense whatsoever of how to watch for pedestrians and cyclists.

  • MotoBX

    See comment about awareness.

  • Kyle Hill

    Rather then doing it from home they should make it where you go to the class but you can get your driver’s license from the instructor. The instructor knows his students better then the DMV and now if the student is TRULY ready or just memorized everything and is really smart but not fully ‘getting it’ on driving. There’s a huge difference between being fit to drive and being TRULY ready to drive.

    If there’s a few key techniques the instructor really thinks his student needs to learn even though the student can legally get the license then the instructor should be allowed to with hold the license so the student can grasp some concepts better like better steering techniques,looking at the mirror more often.etc

    In Germany they are really rigid on your eye movements and that alone can make you fail the course.

  • Kyle Hill

    You know most of our history it was that way. You got it like a fishing license in the 1950s and somehow we all survived and there were both smart and idiot drivers back then like today! WOW! Your not really special as you think!

  • Kyle Hill

    Here’s a driving lesson video from the 1950s. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rb2gInvZOpY “I am your permit to drive an automobile.” 🙂 This is a lot more informative then today’s ‘graphic’ videos that are more about awe and shock. I learned more from these old videos then anything modern classes taught me and the points hit home when learning to drive. I was the top of the driving class not even realizing it as I learned a lot from these and was able to ask and answer questions causing some students to be more interested then they were before.

  • Kyle Hill

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rb2gInvZOpY despite less rules there was still the same ratio as toda of good/bad drivers! Regardless of population.

  • Kyle Hill

    Here’s one in color from 1958 .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOsGJOS2VK4&t=11s this channel has all sorts of old 50s educational stuff.

  • Joe R.

    A few things come to mind:

    1) People in general took things more seriously, and also took pride in their driving skills.

    2) Cars were a lot less powerful. Back in the 1950s even most race cars couldn’t get to 60 mph in 5 or 6 seconds. 15 to 20 was more common. Nowadays almost every vehicle does it in 8 seconds or less. Many do it in under 5 seconds. In short, we’re letting people drive race cars nowadays, but without weeding them out for aptitude, then training them thoroughly.

    3) There was much less traffic. This is important. No matter how lousy a driver you are, the fewer vehicles on the road, the less likely you are to hit something.

    4) There weren’t as many driver distractions as now. In fact, other than passengers and possibly the radio, there were none.

    5) The population is older now. The age 65+ cohort is statistically the most dangerous one out there.

    6) Many people now are on either prescription drugs or illegal drugs. Both can have detrimental effects on driving. This wasn’t so until the last two decades.

    Note also today’s stricter but still not strict enough licensing regimen came about because the general public found the carnage with the easier licensing scheme unacceptable.

  • Joe R.

    One thing which strikes me when watching this and the other video is how generally civilized and orderly the flow of traffic is. You don’t have people doing things like jumping to the head of the line while making left turns, or driving in the parking lane at a red light, then zooming and cutting off the vehicles which waited in the proper lane when the light goes green. You don’t see incessant lane bombing to gain one or two places. You don’t see excessive speed, or gunning it to make lights. You actually see drivers deferring to cyclists and pedestrians, instead of trying to run them off the road.

    I don’t know if it’s the more powerful, better handling cars which easily enable all these stupid moves, or the general me-first attitude which prevails in all facets of today’s society, or the distractions, or the drugs. Whatever the cause, the roads today are a real sh*t show compared to back then.

  • Rex Rocket

    Thy are already horrible unsafe bad drivers with the 5 hour classroom requirement. I don’t it getting worse.

  • Andrew

    My point is only that a driver who is trained and tested on highways will have no idea of how to respond to pedestrians and cyclists (and may well believe that they don’t belong on the road at all).

  • handleman

    What is AAA’s view on this. More people needed to be interviewed.

  • MotoBX

    I didn’t say only highways. I said the test should be more realistic and highlighted the need for a highway portion.

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  • MidtownApt

    New York State just legalized a whole slew of motorized vehicles with NO licensing requirements, NO registration requirements, and NO insurance requirements. These vehicles are capable of exceeding local speed limits, even >30mph. Yet there are no requirements that drivers know how to operate them safely. They are escooters and ebikes. Vision Zero is dead. We’re now in Vision Zero-to-Sixty.

  • JWaldorf

    They are all for it because this will put more $$$ in their pockets by shutting down locally owned and family operated driving schools. They are one of the proponents of this bill. Please contact you local assemblyman and senator and ask them to recall the bill before it gets signed by the Governor.

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