According to most sources, one of the first modern driver education programs was created by Penn State professor Amos Neyhart in 1934 and debuting at a nearby high school. However, the state of New Jersey reportedly developed a driver’s education course in 1933, and in the same year, Bergen County, New Jersey is said to have offered the first classroom driver education instruction, a ten-hour course initially taught in three area schools. One year later, the program added an automobile and driving instructor, making it one of the earliest driver’s ed programs including both classwork and on-the-road training.*
At the same time, the first driver’s ed textbooks were published, mostly with support from auto insurance companies or organizations such as the American Automobile Association (AAA).
The Sportsmanlike Driving text was notable for its breadth of scope, including chapters covering physical fitness, driver psychology, basic auto mechanics, car maintenance, and modern traffic management, as well as the expected “City Driving” and “Driving on the Open Highway” sections. Now-quaint illustrations like the one below peppered the text to add interest.
Much of the advice is surprisingly applicable today. The “bottle test” depicted below would surely tax the situational awareness of many 21st-century drivers (not to mention running afoul of today’s open-container laws), but it was a clever idea decades before we became distracted by infotainment displays and cell-phone texts while behind the wheel…
In a previous COAL, I related the process by which my mother, then in her mid-40s, obtained her first driver’s license after successfully completing a series of professional lessons and passing the required NJ DMV road test.
My story was a bit different. Just after the start of my sophomore year at Morristown High School I turned 15 1/2, and thus was eligible to enroll in a Driver’s Education class, a prerequisite for obtaining a learner’s permit, which would allow me to drive during the day, as long as a licensed driver rode shotgun in the passenger’s seat.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Driver’s Ed was offered by most U.S. high schools, unlike the state of affairs today, when many such elective courses have been discontinued due to budgetary constraints. In the fall of 1969, as I recall, our course combined classwork with actual behind-the-wheel driving experience. The former included reviewing the rules of the road as well as watching grainy black-and-white movies. These usually featured uniformed officers and/or lecturers in white lab coats sternly warning us of the myriad dangers awaiting newly-licensed drivers and reminding us that operating a motor vehicle was a privilege and not a right.
My Driver’s Ed car was a 1970 Pontiac Catalina four-door hardtop, green inside and out with a green vinyl roof just for good measure. Compared to my father’s ’64 T-Bird, it felt like a real land yacht, though it was nearly 400 pounds lighter. But the Catalina was over a foot longer, and the fact that it was nearly four inches wider made parallel-parking a real chore.
Looking ahead over the aircraft-carrier hood was one thing, but trying to see the corner of the rear bumper in parallel parking was impossible, especially with three classmates side-by-side in the rear seat, waiting for their turn to drive. A narrow one-way Morristown, NJ side street with parking on one side was the venue. Luckily, I couldn’t have been going more than 2- or 3-MPH when I lightly tapped the front bumper of a parked car in the midst of that maneuver, so no damage was done.
Another memorable one-on-one behind-the-wheel lesson involved driving our instructor, Mr. E., downtown to pick up a pack of cigarettes (for him, not me). On that occasion, the parallel parking task was completed with no bent sheet-metal or bruised self-confidence.
Long story short, I managed to complete my Driver’s Ed. stint with no further incident and then progressed from learner’s permit (no solo driving, no driving at night) to a real driver’s license. Freedom awaited!
*from History of Driver Education in the United States, Herbert J. Stack, 1966, pub. by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).