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The state of Wisconsin would begin funding driver education for the first time since 2004 under a bipartisan bill advancing in the Legislature.
During a Senate Transportation & Local Government committee hearing, lawmakers and supporters said a bill that would direct the Department of Transportation to establish a driver education grant program would help increase access to driving for young people and make the roads safer.
“When I was a kid, Wisconsin funded driver’s education. We were taught about the dangers of driving and the consequences of driving. Today, we have young adults that drive recklessly or forgo driver’s education all together ” Rep. Bob Donovan (R-Greenfield) said on Tuesday. “While this will not completely solve the reckless driving problems, we have removed the financial barrier with this bill, for those that may have, otherwise, not participated in driver’s education.”
Under the bill, people under the age of 20 who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in the federal school lunch program and are enrolled in a public, choice, charter or home school would be eligible to have costs covered.
State law requires that people under the age of 18 must complete a driver’s education course and accumulate at least 50 hours of behind-the-wheel driving experience, at least 10 hours of which were during hours of darkness, before getting their licenses. However, costs can be prohibitive as private driver’s education courses can cost between $350 and $600.
“We have seen a steady decrease in young adults obtaining driver’s licenses over the last 40 years, especially ages 16 to 18,” Donovan told the committee. “These young adults are at the most risk of auto accidents and many still drive without licenses.”
According to the Federal Highway Administration, the share of teenagers with driver’s licenses in the 16-19 age group fell from 64% in 1995 to less than 40% in 2021.
Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) noted an analysis published in the Annals of Advances in Automotive Medicine that found that an unlicensed teen driver is 11 times more likely to be injured in a car crash than a licensed one and is more likely to engage in high risk driving behaviors including speeding, driving under the influence and not wearing a seat belt.
The bill would enable $6 million for driver’s education included in the state budget passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Gov. Tony Evers to be used. Donovan said that the funds come from fees and payments that the insurance industry makes to the state.
The bill passed the Assembly last week in a voice vote.
A state-funded program prior to 2004 provided $100 for each high school pupil who successfully completed the classroom and behind-the-wheel phases of a DPI-approved driver education course, according to a Legislative Reference Bureau memo obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.
“Some have argued that because private options are available, and driver education is not central to the curriculum, it might be desirable to eliminate driver education aid,” a 2003 Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper stated. The paper also noted that some had argued at the time that eliminating state aid could make it more difficult for some students to afford driver education.
Funding for the program was ultimately not included in the budget.
Schools districts and local officials across Wisconsin have been looking at different ways to expand driver education in recent years, including in Madison where the school board opted in 2022 to dedicate about $100,000 of federal COVID relief funds to the driver’s education program.
Franz Meyer, the dean of culture at Pathways High School in Milwaukee, said at the hearing on Tuesday that many students of his want to be able to work, go to school and participate in extracurriculars, but that it’s challenging to do that without a car. He said many students are interested in driver education but can’t afford it.
Meyer told lawmakers about one student who sometimes drives to school despite not having a license.
“She’s putting herself on a path to post secondary education and creating opportunities, but the way that she gets to school is, and I pretend not to know this, sometimes, is that she drives without a license,” Meyer said. “It’s not good. That’s not the way we want this to work, but that’s her commitment to her school and her schooling in her community. She can’t afford accessing driver’s ed, and so this is what she’s doing.”
The bill is supported by the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance. Andrew Franken, president of the organization, said the insurance industry has also seen a decline in the number of young people learning to drive since 2004. He told lawmakers that the bill could have a positive impact on the costs of auto insurance.
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