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Laws Integrating the Use of Technology in Driver Education and Training Can Promote Safer Driving

June 25, 2024


Traffic crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers both in the United States and worldwide. As cars have continuously gotten bigger, heavier, and more advanced, states’ legal frameworks for training and licensing new drivers have remained largely unchanged since the early 2000s. Integrating technology into the training and licensing process for new drivers is an innovative approach with the potential to greatly improve driver safety.

Despite the documented success of the driver education and training frameworks that govern the licensing of novice drivers, traffic crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers both in the United States and worldwide. Research of graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws in the U.S. demonstrates that comprehensive driver training and education requirements for licensure impact how successful new drivers are when they hit the roads.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified motor vehicle crashes and injuries as a winnable battle, but the potential for progress is hindered by the current disconnect between the advancements in modern vehicle technology and the education and training provided to novice drivers. Law must work to keep pace with rapidly evolving technology.

As cars have continuously gotten bigger, heavier, and more advanced, states’ legal frameworks for training and licensing new drivers have remained largely unchanged since the early 2000s. Integrating technology into the training and licensing process for new drivers is an innovative approach that contributes to increasing uniformity, eliminating disparities, and ultimately enhancing drivers’ preparedness to handle situations that may be encountered when allowed to drive unrestricted. Additionally, by bridging the gap through legal interventions, states can better ensure that affordable, high-quality driver education and training are accessible to all individuals regardless of income.

The most common way that states have integrated technology into the education and licensing process for new drivers is by permitting the use of driving simulators to fulfill a portion of required behind-the-wheel practice hours. Overall, new drivers licensed before they turn 18, who are subject to mandatory driver education and GDL restrictions, are less likely to crash than drivers who are licensed at 18 and exempt from the GDL requirements and restrictions. Behind-the-wheel training with a certified driving instructor has proven to be one of the more effective requirements contributing to lower crash rates, as research shows that the states with GDL restrictions, but no professional behind-the-wheel training requirements, had the highest crash rates.

Driving simulators have been developed and used in driver education since the middle of the 20th century. However, despite initial popularity, the widespread adoption of simulators diminished in the early 2000s. With advancements in driver simulator technologies, the benefits of incorporating simulators back into the novice driver training process are becoming more widely acknowledged. Training drivers in part with driving simulators is a unique approach to training; it safely places drivers in risky, hazardous situations in which they may not be otherwise able to gain driving experience.

Studies assessing the effectiveness of driving simulator training programs have found them to be effective in improving drivers’ hazard perception skills. Recent research is also considering driving simulators as a promising new training intervention for disadvantaged and impaired individuals and calls for more research on how to best incorporate the technology in driver training. Additionally, as the technology advances, simulator data can provide instructors with insight into their students’ specific driving patterns and behaviors and flag behavior that may indicate a driver would benefit from additional targeted training.

States have taken various approaches to enacting laws that address simulator use in driver education and licensing. Most states that mandate a specific number of driver education hours—typically 30 classroom hours and 6 hours of professional behind-the-wheel instruction—allow a portion of the required behind-the-wheel instruction hours to be completed through simulated driving at a designated ratio. This ratio is typically set at four hours of simulation instruction, equal to one hour of actual on-street driving. Additionally, some states have enacted legislation encouraging the use of simulators in addition to the on-street behind-the-wheel driving requirement, but do not allow simulator time to substitute for any required time.

Hawaii, for example, has made notable efforts to integrate technology into the legal framework governing novice driver education and licensing within its borders. Hawaii’s comprehensive policies, which regulate the use of simulators in driver education, help to ensure that all students have equal access to high-quality driver training interventions. Hawaii stands in contrast to other states that do not address simulator use in driver education and the few states that expressly disallow simulators from being used in the training process.

While permitting driving simulator instruction to be used in combination with other traditional driver education methods is the most common way states have addressed the disconnect between driver training and vehicle advancements, states are exploring numerous other ways to integrate technology into the licensing process for novice drivers. Many states have acknowledged the potential use of smartphone applications as a solution for more effective enforcement and documentation of supervised driving hour requirements.

Many states already utilize the “RoadReady” application, sponsored by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and Toyota, for this purpose. Furthermore, there is ongoing exploration into how smartphone applications can be used in other contexts. For example, the Minnesota Department of Transportation conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of a Teen Driver Support System app that would allow parents to monitor their child’s driving behavior. Additional research is being done to explore how in-vehicle technologies and advanced driver-assistance systems can be leveraged during novice driver training and licensing processes.

While additional research is needed to assess the effectiveness of technological interventions for licensing and training new drivers, it is clear that motor vehicle innovation will continue to outpace government regulation in licensing and transportation policy. Leveraging technology-based interventions in the novice driver training and licensing process can enhance the preparation of new drivers to safely navigate the roads, address crash disparities due to inequitable access to quality driver training, and promote more uniform and standardized training across the U.S.

This post was written by Kathryn Feeley, law student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law (J.D. ‘25) and Legal Assistant with the Network for Public Health Law, Eastern Region, under the supervision of Kerri McGowan Lowrey, Deputy Director, Eastern Region, Network for Public Health Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.