History of Drivers Education

Drivers Education has been around for a long while.  We all have experiences with either an online drivers education course or a classroom based form of instruction at our local driving school.  But how did Drivers education come to be a thing in the United States?  The truth is that it’s a long story.  Read below for an extensive history of Drivers Education in the USA.


If you wanted to drive in the early days of autos – all you needed was a car! If you wanted to learn to drive friends, family members or even the car salesman would handle the training.  Scary right? There were no speed limits, drivers licenses, stop signs and the traffic light wouldn’t be invented for decades.  Not to mention many early cars were shipped in crates to the owner and were assembled by the local handyman.  The handyman may have been great at building stairs, but aligning wheels was a foreign concept to him. All this combined lead to accidents. A LOT of accidents. It got so bad that some cities would ban cars entirely! Things went on this way for a while, and while there were some technological improvements, for instance, 4-wheel brakes, the death toll just kept mounting.  There are records from the early 1920’s about automobile safety being taught in public schools, but the curriculum mostly related to how to stay out of the car’s way!

In the early 1930’s Dr. Claire Straith was one of many cosmetic surgeons making a living in the new industry of facial reconstruction caused by car accidents. He began a one-man campaign to get automobile manufactures to improve car safety. While he advocated for a number of changes including padded dashboards and seatbelts, only one manufacturer listened; the Chrysler Corporation. While they did not add seatbelts, in 1937 they did switch to rubber knobs and recessed equipment to reduce the number of puncture wounds during accidents. It marked the first time a design change was made not for style, but for safety.  Dr. Straith’s work also led to the very first recorded driver’s education class being taught in 1933 at State College High School in Pennsylvania. A few more classes would be added at locations around the country based on a curriculum written by the American Automobile Association (AAA). 

It was about this time that there started to be a larger discussion of automotive safety. In 1935 a widely read article called “–And Sudden Death” was circulated. It advocated for better driver behavior and millions of copies were reprinted by insurance companies, police departments and high schools.  In a few cities, new drivers could attend voluntary classes at local universities managed by insurance providers. Sadly, though, these classes were few and far between.  Most drivers still learned from friends and family, but improvements like “safety glass” and wider tires had started to become common.  In 1937, an article written by Frank Hubbard detailed the dangers to students injured on their way to schools in cars and busses. This led to a number of national conferences on safety, including cars. It was at these conferences that real driver safety training started to be a topic of discussion. Efforts by C. E. Minnick in Maryland really got the ball rolling in terms of drivers education in schools. In his first year of this effort, 18 classes were taught. Ten years later drivers ed was available in 3,000 schools nationwide!

However, these courses were purely voluntary at the time and while most students took them, they were wildly inconsistent in terms of topics and quality. It didn’t hurt though, that beginning in 1941 the US military began teaching all new recruits how to drive. With the outbreak of WWII, the Army needed anyone in the infantry to be able to take the wheel and do so safely. This directly impacted the quality of parent instruction when these soldiers returned home. As time passed, more and more students began to receive driver’s education from their high-school.  New inventions like the car-simulator would be introduced in the 1950s, allowing simulated practice behind the wheel.

The big shift to what we would consider “modern” drivers ed happened in 1966 as part of President Johnson’s Highway Bill. It stipulated all states would have to standardize and require driver’s education or risk losing funding. All 50 states complied and the modern era of driver’s education was born.

Up until this point, almost all drivers ed was taught through your high school and was usually taught by a teacher looking to make a little extra side-income. Full-time and trained instructors were rare. This system worked for a while, but in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s budget cuts began to take hold in the US, many high schools started cutting their driver’s ed programs as a cost-saving measure. Thus, a cottage industry of small driving schools started to pop up around high schools across the county.  

This cottage industry of drivers education school sitting close to high-schools worked well, but large states such as California, Florida and Texas had a problem. They required new drivers to take drivers education courses, but many small towns could not support a full-time driving school. This meant that some students would have to drive more than an hour, sometimes two, to get to the nearest driving academy. Given that most driving schools start shortly after the nearest high-school lets out, getting to class was a serious issue.  Parents couldn’t handle a 4 hour round trip every day even if they could take the time off from work. So what could states do?   

In 1978 the first correspondence drivers education course was made available in California. Students could study at home and then send in their completed work to be reviewed by a certified instructor. Behind the wheel practice was still managed by a parent, but it meant that only one trip to the DMV for the final test was needed. This process worked and the number of states allowing remote drivers ed began to increase.  As technology improved, so did these remote classes. Courses were soon available using VHS movies as supplemental material. We then saw CDs and later DVDs with included practice tests. Finally, in 1998 the first driver’s ed course was offered online by DriversEd.com. To say it was a bit crude was an understatement. Mostly text- and a few images, it was still massively more convenient and reliable than the older methods. In 2018,  20 years after the first online driver’s ed course launched, the landscape has changed. Full audio, video and interactive content is the norm and some providers like Aceable.com are even experimenting with augmented reality in their quest to provide the best online drivers ed experience.

So where does drivers ed go from here? We will probably see the end of offline classroom instruction in states that allow online drivers ed within the next 10 years. Frankly, they cannot compete with the safety and quality of these new online drivers ed programs. We should also start to see more and more states allow these programs as the results become irrefutable. From there, who knows? With self-driving cars just over the horizon, new drivers may opt out of getting their license completely. In 20 years drivers ed may go the way of the Dodo. Only time will tell.

Soooo, you just saw those flashing lights in your rearview mirror and you are not a fully licenced driver. What happens next is going to depend on what state you are in and what your infraction was. First, follow all the basic procedures, reduce your speed and pull over to the next safe spot.

You may have some idea of why you are being pulled over, or you might be clueless. At the moment, just wait for the officer to approach. First, did you have your responsible adult in the front passenger seat? In most states, this needs to be a family member over the age of 25, usually a parent or legal guardian. If you did not have this person with you and were driving alone or unsupervised, things are about to get bad for you regardless of why you were stopped. In most states, your car is going to be impounded and you will need to be picked up. You will immediately have your learners permit suspended, usually for 6 months. In some cases, you will be barred from getting your license until you are 18. This is on top of any ticket you might receive from your infraction.

But, let us assume you didn’t make that bonehead move and you and your parent are in the car. Wait for the officer to approach. Turn off the radio and, if it is dark, turn on the dome light. Otherwise keep your hands on the wheel.  The officer will ask to see your license and proof of insurance for the vehicle. In some states, they will also request to see the drivers license of the parent as well. In both cases, they will run a background check looking for outstanding warrants. If your license and insurance come back without issue, the officer will usually explain why they pulled you over. It could be anything from failure to use a signal to a burned out tail light.

The officer will obviously know that you have a learners permit, and what happens now will depend on your infraction. If you did something simple like forgetting to use a turn signal or travelling too close to the car in front of them you are very likely to be let off with a simple warning. You can explain to the officer that you are still learning and that you were focusing on something else, like oncoming traffic. Explain that you are still in the middle of your online drivers ed course and haven’t mastered everything. Officers will, in most cases, simply suggest you be more careful and let you go about your day.

However, if you were doing something willfully dangerous, like exceeding the speed limit by a significant margin expect no mercy. The officer has a duty to make sure you understand the gravity of the matter. You can expect a financial penalty (a ticket) and you will usually receive a delay in your ability to get your full license.  Also, whatever you do, you are not advised to argue or insult the officer. They have a significant amount of leeway when it comes to student drivers. In states such as Texas or California, they can actually prevent you from getting your license until you are 18. So keep your attitude in check. Go vent about it on online afterwards.  In some states, the parent can also be fined, but usually, they will simply be heavily admonished.

Officers were once student drivers too, so if you keep it calm, cool and collected and accept the mistake 9 times out of 10 you can expect a warning.

Happy driving.

Is online drivers ed legitimate?

That is far and away the most common question we hear. So to sum it up: Yes, online drivers education is completely legal and fully certified by state agencies. Yes, you can get complete drivers ed from your computer.

Now, here is the slightly longer version.

State-legal at-home drivers ed began in 1983. Back then, the courses were not online (obviously) but were rather study at home correspondence courses. You studied the packet, answered the quizzes and sent them in. Times change and the technology evolves, but each of these courses has been managed by state agencies.

The courses are regulated by a different agency depending on the state. In the case of Texas, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, known as the TDLR. In California, it is managed by the Department of Motor Vehicles, known as the DMV. In Ohio, it is the BMV, and so on.

Each of these agencies has a relatively similar process. They require each online education provider to cover a certain number of topics the state deems critical. Much of the content is similar, but some differ. For example, northern states put more emphasis on driving in snowy conditions and whereas California has a section on driving during earthquakes. No, Texas does not have a section on how to drive your pickup off-road.

Once the education company completes their unique content and curriculum it is then sent to the relevant agency for review. While this is going on, the state reviews the providers themselves. They ensure there’s a local representative, review security procedures and even go as far as looking at bank records to ensure that the school is legitimate and will not disappear after taking the students money. There are data transfer protocols, record keeping procedures, identify verification requirements, this list goes on and on.

This whole process can take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years depending on the state.

If the school passes the review and the content is approved, they will get their state certification. Finally, they can begin offering their course online!

That isn’t the end of the process though, the schools are audited regularly to ensure they are complying with all the legal procedures. Even a slight infraction can cost them their certification. Each year the state continues to manage their approvals and remove underperforming providers. You can visit your state’s governing body to ensure that your online driver’s ed provider is state certified in good standing. Rest assured, Legit Course does not review or rate any drivers ed programs that have lost or are about to lose their certification.

Once every student completed their course, their score, their records and all the identity information are securely transferred to the state to manage the final steps in the licensing process.

So far, over 12 million students in the US have completed their driver’s education online. Each of these online schools has to go through a rigorous state-controlled process to ensure they are providing a legitimate and top-quality education experience for their students. So, yes, online drivers ed is very legit.