Road rules

Idaho bill would eliminate driver’s ed requirement; instructors fear that’ll make the roads less safe

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Learning how to drive is a rite of passage — for most teenagers, it’s their first brush with adulthood and a critical step toward independence. Often, getting their driver’s license goes hand-in-hand with a teen’s first job. It means no longer having to rely on parents for rides to sports and school and, with it, signifies that a young person can move about the world with responsibility and accountability. 

All that said, the process of learning — going through the classroom and practical aspects of driver’s education — gets taken for granted. Meanwhile, a bill working its way through the Idaho Legislature would eliminate the state driver’s ed requirement, giving parents the choice of whether to enroll their teen in a course or take on the role of driving instructor themselves.

House Bill 320 is sponsored by Moscow Republican Rep. Brandon Mitchell but fronted by Plummer-Worley resident Bonnie Voves, who told the Reader that the impetus for the measure came from her personal experience with teaching her son to drive at age 14 in Alaska.

Voves said she moved to Idaho with her family from Alaska six years ago, and had already trained her son to operate a vehicle. Coming to the Gem State, she discovered that her son would be required by law to take a driver’s ed course — a step that’s not required in her home state.

“I’m marking you down for failure to yield, wide turns and for not doing the dishes last night when your mom asked you to.” Courtesy photo.

“I just didn’t think that was necessary, and the cost was high — some of these classes are up to $400,” she said, zeroing in on the financial burden to some parents, which she argued creates an unequal situation in which “people with the means can afford to have their kids take driver’s ed, but others can’t.” 

Her bill, Voves said, is looking for equal access and opportunity to get kids trained to drive in the way — and for the cost — that parents, rather than the state or driving schools, think is right. “What’s to keep them from charging $1,000 [for a lesson]? Nothing,” she said.

What’s more, she added, it’s a parents’ rights issue: “With driver’s ed under the Department of Education, why can’t it be operated similarly to home schooling, where it’s the parents who have the choice?”

To top it off, Voves said she was disappointed that when her son was taking the course, students were assigned to describe some of the things their parents do in the car that aren’t correct. He didn’t want to answer that question.

“I’m glad you didn’t answer that question,” Voves told her son.

HB 320 would remove mandatory driver’s ed in Idaho and replace it with a new law requiring learners aged 14 to apply for a permit and pass a written test and log a minimum of 50 hours of supervised driving with a licensed parent or guardian aged 21 or older. For 16-year-olds, the law would require learners to apply for an intermediate license, pass a state driving exam and adhere to graduated driver’s license rules, “which have been proven to be safer and more effective than driver’s education classes,” according to the bill’s statement of purpose. The law would not change for those 17 and older, who are currently not required to take driver’s ed — simply pass the written exam.

For local driving instructors, HB 320 is not only a solution in search of a problem, but will create more problems than it solves.

“The No. 1 killer of young people is auto accidents. It’s a serious thing,” said Wayne Johnson, who operates Buckle Up Driving School, which serves students at Forrest Bird Charter Schools, as well as learners in Priest River, Sandpoint and Clark Fork.

“We’re in it together — driver’s ed and the parents,” he added. “But they want to just drop off the teacher part.”

Johnson came to driver’s ed after retiring as a school administrator, offering driving courses in Post Falls and Washington. After retiring — yet again — and finishing building a house in Laclede, longtime former local driver’s ed instructor Joan Head asked him to get back behind the wheel, after which he worked for the Lake Pend Oreille School District for several years, until the district stopped offering driver’s ed as part of its curriculum. He then went to the charter school, where he offers courses — subsidized so that the cost runs about $15 for students. Meanwhile, private in-person courses cost $275.

(The local driver’s ed community remains tight-knit — locals who took driving lessons in the 1990s will remember Mrs. Head, as well as Charles Randolph, who died at 79 on March 16 — the latter a Sandpoint resident since the mid-1940s, U.S. Army Reserves veteran, Sandpoint High School teacher, basketball coach and driver’s ed instructor for 40 years. When the Reader spoke to Johnson, it was a day after he’d attended Randolph’s funeral.)

Johnson said instruction involves 30 hours of online work, six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction and six hours of in-car observation. Students then receive their permit and work with their parents for six months on the graduated license program. That adds up to about 50 hours of instruction with parents, under the current system.

Julia Klontz, owner and instructor at Panhandle Driving School in Sandpoint, provides similar levels of instruction and prices, underscoring that there are avenues for parents to find financial assistance — particularly through the state-afforded Advanced Opportunities program, which can reduce course fees to between $25 and even free. 

“None of our students who have applied have been denied that, as far as I know,” said Klontz, who has operated Panhandle Driving School since 2017 and boasts a stable of five teachers, including herself.

Both Johnson and Klontz oppose HB 320, underscoring that standardized driver’s ed training not only makes the roadways safer, but instills a range of intangible skills like being cognizant of other road users — from other motorists to motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. 

“Really it affects all of us who drive and use the roadways,” she said. 

“When I was in kindergarten, running a driving school wasn’t something I necessarily thought I’d be doing,” added Klontz, who transitioned into driving instruction after working in banking. “It was not on my radar that I would be teaching driver’s ed. Now that I’m here, in this stage of my life, I wouldn’t take any other profession. Being able to have that direct impact on the safety of our teenagers and our community as a whole, I feel really good coming home at night and knowing that I have made a difference.”

That’s an especially big deal for Klontz, who with her husband Ricky have two young children — the youngest a 5-year-old, whom she wants to keep as safe as possible, giving her work a level of personal importance that goes beyond the job itself.

“I don’t want someone driving irresponsibly when my 5-year-old is out there crossing the street or playing on the sidewalk,” she said. 

While Klontz and Johnson agree that parents are important to — and should be involved with — teaching their teens to drive, there’s a reason that drivers for decades have relied on trained professionals to teach them the finer points of operating a motor vehicle.

“I fear that not all parents would cover all the topics that we cover and in the detail that we do,” Klontz said. “That’s the hard part.”

Bob Ashbrook, now retired after decades teaching driver’s ed and managing testing locally, put a finer point on the legislation. 

“It’s asinine,” he said. 

Ashbrook began his career as a driver’s ed instructor in the late 1960s and came to the job after exploring joining the Idaho State Police. Rather than a patrol officer, he discovered that teaching driver’s ed fulfilled the public safety aspect of the job, but took a proactive approach — instilling the good habits that would hopefully avert the kinds of roadway tragedies (and costly tickets) that highway police often have to contend with.

As far as parents’ ability to teach those skills, Ashbrook sees why and how they should be active participants in their teens’ learning, but really it takes a professional to ensure new drivers have access to all the best practices.

“Sandpoint drivers are… well, let’s just say they have a lot of bad habits,” he told the Reader, specifically noting the huge influx of newcomers to the area in recent years, many of whom have come from states where driver’s ed is not mandatory or road rules and infrastructure conditions are vastly different.

The enormous population changes not only in Idaho but Bonner County have also been felt by driving instructors. Both Klontz and Johnson said there is tremendous demand for courses. Klontz, being both an owner and instructor, is on the road several times almost every day with her students. Meanwhile, Johnson said he has such a backlog of students that he’s considering offering two full courses over the summer. 

Some of that is due to the population boom, but also delayed instruction due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As more people are vaccinated for the virus, they are returning to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of daily life, and that includes booking teens into driver’s ed. 

“We’re signing kids up for this fall right now because the classes are full,” Johnson said.

The future of HB 320 is unclear. As the Legislature remains in recess due to a wave of COVID-19 infections among lawmakers, and the end of the session already in sight, “I hope they take it up when they come back,” Voves said, but she’s not optimistic that the bill will make its way out of committee before the end of the session.

Rep. Mitchell could not be reached for comment. However, Ponderay Republican Rep. Sage Dixon has stated his support for the bill, telling the Reader in an email that the bill will not go forward this session, though he expects Mitchell to bring it again in the 2022 session.

“I am always in favor of parents having the ability to make decisions about their children’s education, and, having taught five of my seven children how to drive, I do not believe a private party has more interest in a child being safe on the road than a parent does,” he wrote. “Ultimately, the student has to pass both the written and practical driving exam, so it really doesn’t matter who does the instructing so long as they meet the ability standard required by the state.”

As Dixon pointed out, the issue touches on a number of critical issues — among them, what role the state should play in requiring various kinds of education, including driving.

“It creates kind of that gray area,” Klontz said. “How do we know that every homeschool curriculum is teaching a student everything they need to know? … As driving instructors, we just want students to be getting all the information and knowledge they need.”

Regarding the bill, she added, “There’s always room for improvement with the driver’s ed experience. … We want to find a happy medium between what [the bill is] demanding and what we offer.”

For Johnson, teaching driver’s ed remains a job that not only creates safe drivers, but helps teens transition from kids into good citizens.

“I wouldn’t be doing this as a retirement job if I didn’t feel strongly about it,” he said.

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