Online driver education could survive pandemic reform
Published: 01/18/2022 23:05:04
Modified: 01/18/2022 23:04:00
BOSTON — Driver instructors on Tuesday expressed mixed views on whether Massachusetts should allow the classroom portion of state-required driver training to be offered online.
Driver’s license applicants under the age of 18 must complete a driver education program either at a public secondary school or at a private driving school approved by the Motor Vehicle Registry. Courses include a minimum of 30 hours of classroom instruction, plus 18 hours of on-road instruction.
Bills introduced by Democratic Salem Sen. Joan Lovely and Rep. Paul Tucker, which were introduced to the Transportation Committee at a hearing on Tuesday, would allow the Registrar to also “approve a driver training program introduced in an online teaching format”. The bills (S 2353, H 3615) would also remove the requirement that the 18 hours of in-car training include six hours of shadowing another student.
Lovely said the legislation aims to make permanent an online option that has become available during the pandemic.
“Not only have the scores for these courses increased with the online option, but we have also seen more students being able to participate,” she said.
Tucker and Lovely said their AAA-backed bills would make lessons more accessible to learner drivers with health issues, after-school jobs or sports practices, and those who don’t have transportation to and from from their lessons.
Mary Maguire, director of public and government affairs at AAA Northeast, said more than 25 states have approved some form of online driver training, and Georgia passed such legislation in 2007.
Testifying against the bills, Jake Cooney of the CMSC driving school warned of the possibility that large national online programs could enter Massachusetts with “an off-the-shelf program with no live instruction tied to an instructor certified or at an approved school, and they’ll just roll it out on a massive scale for $29,” driving local schools out of business and offering no commitment to students.
“We were an early adopter of online education during the shutdown,” he said. “We accelerated our Zoom learning quickly, but it was under a strict registry guideline that it could only be a live online course taught by a certified professional driving instructor.”
Another driving school operator, Joe Evans, said some of his instructors refuse to teach online but effectively motivate students in person. He argued that the classroom experience cannot be replicated.
“Walking into our classroom, the first thing we do is turn off our cell phones,” Evans said. “Guess what, I can tell you when a child finds himself in front of his computer at home in the evening, at 8:00 or 7:00 in the evening, guess what is in front of him? Their cell phone. When they get in that car for the first time, we want them to start learning not to use that cell phone, not to have it with them.
Kathleen Donohue Johnson, owner of Donohue Driving School in Hudson, said she is “strongly supportive” of the legislation and has taken 15 online classes since March 2020. Attendance and test scores have increased and parents appreciated the convenience, she said.
“I believe the online option has been so wonderful for so many people,” she said. “It gives everyone the comfort of learning safety, of being safe. We teach them to be good, safe drivers, but from the safety of their own home.
Joanna Capparella said her son took an online driving course through their local AAA chapter in the spring of 2021, benefiting from the virtual experience in two ways. Capparella said her son commutes an hour each way to high school and his family doesn’t have to bear the burden of extra transportation to classes. He also relies on assistive devices for his dyslexia, and the online format “has allowed him to access information in a way that classroom instruction doesn’t,” she said.
“He is a safe, savvy driver thanks to his participation in online courses,” Capparella said.