DES MOINES — Iowa law requires teenagers pursuing a driver’s license to spend at least 20 hours behind the wheel — six with a certified instructor and 14 with a parent or guardian.
Changes that appear likely to become state law would more than double the time required driving with a parent, but eliminate the need for an instructor, both in the classroom and behind the wheel.
Parents who home-school their children have been allowed to include driver’s ed in their curriculum since 2011. Senate File 546 would extend that option to all parents.
The proposal is part of majority Republicans’ parental choice agenda, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, who home-schools his children.
The change would create “an opportunity to give parents another chance to teach their children, to exercise those opportunities for parent choices,” he said during floor debate on SF 546, which was approved 59-34 in the Iowa House with two Democrats joining the GOP majority.
Over the past year, Fry said, parents who have been unable to enroll their children in traditional programs offered through public schools have asked him why they couldn’t teach their children to drive.
“Many students today are behind in their driver's education because they couldn't get into the school system due to COVID-19,” he said. “We're trying to make it easier, safer, and the opportunity exists for parents and their students to be able to obtain their driver's license.”
Teachers in the House had some reservations about turning over driver’s instruction to parents who may not know the material very well, may not be good role models themselves and may be reluctant to hold their children to the same standards as do professional instructors.
“Just because you have a valid driver's license doesn't mean you're qualified to teach someone to drive,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City.
She recalled a similar debate 10 years ago when the Legislature voted to allow home-school parents to teach driver’s ed. A longtime driver’s education instructor told her that although students’ driving skills improve more rapidly if parents take time to drive with them, parents are sometimes unwilling to place their child in the most challenging driving conditions. That’s the job of a driver’s ed instructor “because I have the background and the experience and the brake,” he said, referring to the brake driver’s ed instructors typically have — and use — as necessary. He estimated using it between three and 25 times per student.
Evone Vognsen, who oversees Kirkwood Community College’s driver’s ed program that enrolls about 650 students a year from the Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Linn-Mar School districts, agrees. It’s a big responsibility to teach someone “to be put behind a wheel of a machine that can cause damage to the car and people inside and others.” As a mother, she questions whether parents want to shoulder that responsibility without the help of professional instructors.
Currently, a student must take a test to get a driver’s permit in order to take driver’s ed, Vognsen said. Once the student is 16 and has passed driver’s ed, he or she can get an intermediate license.
It’s been a while since she took driver’s ed, said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, another retired teacher. She joked she had to learn to change a tire. “I think they have a number for AAA now.”
What hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of thorough instruction before putting a teenager behind the wheel of a “deadly weapon,” she said.
“I also know that adult drivers are not always good role models for their children,” Mascher said.
SF 546 eliminates the requirement for 30 hours of classroom instruction. Based on her classroom experience, Steckman said students may speed through the online instruction without comprehending the material.
“I guess it doesn't matter. It's just driving a big lethal weapon, you know,” she said.
Parents, she said, are unlikely to be able to match the material driver’s education teachers present on topics such as substance abuse, pedestrian awareness and railroad crossing safety.
The current requirement is for four hours of substance abuse instruction and 20 minutes on railroad crossing safety. SF 546 requires only that those topics, along with instruction on sharing the road with bikes and motorcycles, and pedestrian awareness be taught.
Once students have completed driver’s ed, Vognsen said, they take an Iowa Department of Transportation behind-the-wheel driving test only if the instructor or parents request it. About one in 20 students is a “must drive” for the test because of driving skills or receiving a low grade in class.
As someone who has taught his children to drive, Fry rejected arguments that parents would not hold their children to the same standards as certified instructor.
“I can tell you the amount of time that I spend with that child and driver's education far outweighs the amount of time I received when I went through driver's education in the school system,” he said. A parent understands the stakes are high not only for their child’s safety but “because who's going to pay the insurance and liability and all the damages that would incur should they get in an accident?
“It's me. I's not the school. It's me as the parent, so I have a very vested interest,” Fry said.
SF 546 did not attract the attention of many lobbying groups. Homeschool Iowa and Americans for Prosperity supported the bill while the departments of Education and Transportation were neutral along with public school advocacy groups. No insurance companies registered for or against the bill.
The bill, which was amended, now goes back to the Iowa Senate, where it previously was approved 28-17.