This is a paper for presentation at the

International Association for Driver Education IVV

Road Safety Conference SAFEX 2004

13-15 May in Rovinj, Croatia

Published in Driving Magazine, 2007, 16-19.


Dr. Leon James, Professor of Psychology

and  Dr. Diane Nahl, Professor of Information Science

University of Hawaii



A New Paradigm for a Global

Lifelong Driver Education Curriculum


In response to the appalling statistics and the mounting concern over teen drivers, many states in the U.S. and some countries in Europe and elsewhere have instituted a graduated licensing approach that provides for several licensing phases: learner's permit, intermediate or provisional license, and then full license.


A graduated licensing system supervises young, novice drivers in progressively more difficult motoring experiences at a controlled pace. Proponents believe that the more supervised practice teen drivers obtain the more experience they gain, so it is less likely they will be involved in a crash. Since young people typically have difficulty resisting peer influence to take risks and show bravado, proponents also hope more supervision will help build safer attitudes. Restrictions may include:

  1. Six months of crash-free, conviction-free driving

  2. Zero tolerance for alcohol

  3. No driving between midnight and 6:00 a.m. without authorization

  4. Provisional color-coded drivers' licenses

  5. Successful completion of a driver education course

During the permit stage at age 15 or 16, young drivers must be supervised by an adult, pass a drivers' education course, and remain conviction-free to proceed to the next level.  The provisional or intermediate license includes on-road testing and a requirement to remain citation-free for the license period. Other restrictions often apply, such as more supervised driving and a curfew or prohibition against late-night driving. The third stage of full licensing occurs after successful completion of the first two stages and includes a zero-tolerance alcohol law. After New Zealand adopted a graduated licensing system, studies showed that the injury and fatality rated among young drivers decreased. By 1999, 20 states in the U.S. had enacted some form of graduated licensing..


Clearly, the need for driver education is high especially among teens, yet states rarely require it or fund it at insufficient levels. Driving courses are seldom available in public schools, and those that offer courses cannot meet the demand. Private driving schools often service the courts as a form of re-education or rehabilitation for driving offenses. Officials frequently comment that the weakening of society's resolve to deliver driver education knowledge is associated with the worsening driving environment. The American Driver and Traffic Safety Association believes that the majority of drivers are rude, simply ignoring traffic rules. In the 1970s 90 percent of people in the U.S. took drivers' education courses, while today, it's 35 percent. 4


In addition to teaching their kids to drive skillfully and appropriately, parents can take steps to help prevent or reduce the number of crashes involving teen drivers: For example, parents can:

  1. Supervise the teen's driving time

  2. Give the teen sufficient supervised practice during the learner's permit period and throughout the first year of licensed driving

  3. Put a limit on the number of passengers allowed

  4. Limit the teen's driving during periods of increased risk such as weekends and particular holidays such as New Year's Eve

  5. Establish a curfew

  6. Insist that the teen and passengers wear safety belts

  7. Set limits on the areas and locales where the teen is permitted to drive

  8. Prohibit the teen from driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol

  9. Encourage the teen to use good judgment both as a driver and as passenger

  10. Be a good role model as a driver

The potential for a crash can heighten with aggressive driving, driver inexperience, and inappropriate interaction with passengers. Along with parent supervision, graduated licensing allows initial driving experience to accumulate under less hazardous conditions, and prohibits recreational, nighttime driving that has proven to be particularly dangerous for young, beginning drivers. Driving instructors are aware that teenagers often lack the ability to exercise rational control over their behavior when driving a vehicle in a reckless manner. Today's more complex driving conditions demand that traditional driver education be re-designed to incorporate judgment and self-control in addition to the rules of the road and handling techniques.


Throughout this century we have relied on the traditional driver education approach of teaching and testing for safety knowledge, while hoping to instill responsibility. Affective driver education remains on the back burner of the driver education curriculum during the past three decades while aggressive driving and road rage were seething below the surface. Society is sensitized to the cultural inroads of general disrespect that are expressed daily in aggressive driving practices. This new awareness has stimulated the creation of new paradigm in driver education.


Motivation and responsibility are essential components of affective education. The new paradigm in driver education shifts the focus from just safety knowledge to a more integrated driver education that imparts affective or emotional  skills. There is a new recognition that training traffic emotions is both possible and necessary.  This focus on the importance of values looks toward a new philosophy of driving that is community-oriented rather than individual-centered.


Driver education can alert people to the personality factors that tend to take over our style of operating a vehicle:  our self-esteem or a sense of personal power, our prudence or riskiness, our competitiveness or sense of community support. Since these personal traits stem from the cultural norms and social values in society, it's important to employ a social style of driver instruction that enables students to influence each other through dialog and modeling. One particularly noteworthy recommendation of the new driver education approach is to "expand the integration of driver education topics into other school subjects, particularly health, community service, and other values-related activities."8 This statement recognizes that driving is not an isolated activity done alone, and that it is both part of our general values and character, as well as part of culture.

Driving Psychology Curriculum in the New Paradigm

In 1997, we proposed a Lifelong Driver Education framework in Congressional hearings of the U.S. Transportation Department in Washington.9 There is a new readiness in the nation's judiciary system to play a more significant role in driver supervision and re-training. The stick is the presence of new aggressive driving laws that increase misdemeanors to felonies, and the carrot is supplemental driver training as an alternative to going to jail and avoiding insurance points from citations.


Since we acquire aggressive driving attitudes riding in our parents' cars, lifelong driver education makes sense. Lifelong driver education creates a Kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum that formalizes, augments, and transforms the current informal negative training into positive concepts and standards.


A lifelong driver education curriculum must employ findings from psychology about human development, i.e., that development proceeds according to learning phases during which appropriate instruction can be effectively delivered. The new driver education curriculum ought to be a driving psychology curriculum because the entire personality of the individual is involved in driving. According to our research, driving behavior involves the three basic aspects of personality:

  1. affective--the driver's feelings, emotions, attitudes, and values

  2. cognitive--the driver's thoughts, judgment, and knowledge

  3. sensorimotor--the driver's vision, motor reactions, fatigue, stress, pain

These three aspects of our driving personality jointly determine driving behavior, so it's important to assess each of the three areas. Good driving requires that we engage in an endless task of preventing overt mistakes and suppressing irrational decisions. Since they are the source of irrational judgments and costly mistakes, this requires schooling our traffic emotions.


In general, a focus on "affective instruction" is desirable in the early years, introducing basic attitudes of sociality such as obedience, respect, and conscience. This would be followed by a focus on "cognitive instruction" in the middle years, involving reasoning, decision-making, and problem solving. There would be a continued focus on emotions and attitudes on the road to reinforce the early education focus and to raise it to its appropriate cognitive level. In the mid-teens "sensorimotor instruction" begins that teaches how to maneuver a vehicle on public roads. Teens are also taught cognitive knowledge of traffic laws and scenario analysis of driving incidents. The new curriculum would strengthen these areas and include a strong affective component that focuses on social responsibility, human rights, and emotional intelligence. The practical focus is teaching that the driver's prime directive is to remain in control of the vehicle as well as the situation.


Affective driving skills are schooled first because they establish the attitudes behind the wheel that stem from the motivational and socio-emotional system. Traffic emotions govern our competitiveness and aggressiveness, as well as our peacefulness, optimism, and compassion. Our thinking follows from our attitudes and motives. Since we think in conformity with how we feel, negative feelings promote pessimistic thoughts. Our actions are the consequences of the attitudes we maintain and the thoughts we entertain. Driving is mostly accomplished by relying on automatic habits that interact in these three areas of our driving personality. Obviously, a complete change of driving habits requires a lifetime involvement. This extended quality of continuing driver education is necessary to help people adapt to the ever-increasing complexity of congested driving and the new devices used in moving vehicles, such as cell phones, computers, entertainment systems, GPS systems, and Internet access. Each new generation needs to be taught the three aspects of a driver's personality according to the natural developmental order of human growth, at the appropriate age level. The following are model instructional objectives for driver personality development in the three domains of behavior. 

Kindergarten and Elementary School: Focus on Affective Driving Skills

Age-appropriate cognitive explanations and sensorimotor demonstrations to go with these affective skills. Students will learn:

  1. How we create stress for drivers by our behavior in and around cars.

  2. To observe our natural competitiveness for space and how to voluntarily reduce it.

  3. To become aware of our anger in disputes about public spaces and right of way, how we express it, how it influences others, what are its health consequences, and how to defuse it.

  4. To avoid learned aggression by analyzing television scenes of drivers behaving badly and getting away with it.

  5. To practice learned optimism as pedestrians, passengers, and road users by formulating positive assumptions and outcomes.

  6. To activate natural feelings of compassion and sympathy for the basic rights and needs of strangers in public places, and to appreciate community feelings.

  7. To practice self-witnessing activities as passengers with parents in cars

  8. To practice self-witnessing activities as pedestrians and other road uses

  9. To practice group discussions on civility and human rights in road situations

  10. Etc.

Middle School:  Focus on Cognitive Driving Skills

Age-appropriate review of the affective skills and their extension to these cognitive skills with sensorimotor demonstrations. Students will learn:


  1. What principles are safest for children as passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

  2. To become more aware of habits of thinking while walking or riding.

  3. To develop objective judgment about strangers' behavior.

  4. To develop emotional intelligence as drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

  5. To critically analyze driving incidents (scenario analysis) by focusing on identifying choice-points (how to prevent or break the chain of errors that leads to catastrophe).

  6. To acknowledge the human rights of all drivers.

  7. To acknowledge passengers' rights (their convenience, comfort, and safety).

  8. To acknowledge pedestrians rights (why they must have the right of way).

  9. To acknowledge the rights of bicycle riders and how to behave near them.

  10. To acknowledge the rights of truck drivers, the need for truck deliveries, and how to behave near them.

  11. To practice group discussions on the importance of civility in public behavior (respecting mutual rights, inalienable rights, fairness, character, community, etc.)

  12. To be able to defend the ideal of social responsibility in public places

  13. To recognize the benefits and rewards of being supportive and positive.

  14. To practice self-witnessing activities as passengers

  15. To practice self-witnessing activities as pedestrians and other road uses

  16. Etc.

High School:  Focus on Sensorimotor Driving Skills

Age-appropriate review of the affective and cognitive skills and their extension to these sensorimotor skills. Students will learn:


  1. To practice with hands-on coordination skills with a driving simulator and supervised highway experience

  2. To practice self-witnessing and self-regulation techniques for acquiring automotive discipline skills

  3. To develop ability to monitor and control one's risk-taking tendency under various driving circumstances

  4. To stay alert by acquiring attentional checking routines

  5. To be prepared in handling emergencies (performing appropriate safety principles under emotionally challenging conditions)

  6. To be prepared in handling aggressive drivers or road users (performing emotionally intelligent strategies)

  7. To practice appropriate and effective driver-to-driver communication by learning to control facial rage, observing local driving norms, performing random acts of kindness, and practicing supportive rather than aggressive driving strategies

  8. To train for multi-tasking (phone, dashboard dining, children, email, GPS communication, etc.)

  9. To practice basic driving exercises within a group context as preparation for QDC membership (see below)

  10. To act with appreciation and cooperation towards traffic law enforcement and education

  11. Etc.

There may be a concern about adding another layer to the school curriculum schedule, but the need for driving psychology cannot be questioned. There may be an opportunity to consolidate current efforts in traffic safety, non-violent conflict resolution, and Self Science programs, with the new driving psychology curriculum--all under the rubric of emotional intelligence training. But it's clear that driving must be addressed explicitly at all levels of public education.

Post Licensing: The QDC Approach

In addition to graduated licensing and the new K-12 driving psychology curriculum described above, adult drivers need continuing training through Quality Driving Circles (QDCs). QDCs may be organized in neighborhood, family, school, workplace, or as online asynchronous groups. QDCs are voluntary groups of 2 to 10 who meet regularly to help and encourage one another to follow a driving self-improvement program. Some drivers have sufficient motivation to accomplish this on their own, but in our experience the majority of drivers do not. Consider the case of dieting and losing weight. A few can do it on their own and stay trim, fit, and healthy for years afterwards, but the majority of Americans are overweight and spend billions each year on methods to stay trim. Support groups increase the likelihood that change will be successful. Most drivers need a social and instructional support group to maintain a lifelong motivation for self-improvement activities such as

  1. Performing self-witnessing procedures to get to know yourself objectively as a driver

  2. Keeping a Driving Log, Journal, Diary, or other systematic record of one's driving on a long term basis

  3. Understanding cultural road rage and how it's transmitted to the next generation

  4. Counteracting learned cynicism and pessimism with learned optimism and understanding their relation to health

  5. Learning emotional intelligence through scenario analysis of driving incidents and understanding choice points in decision making

  6. Practicing a supportive driving style and experiencing its benefits

  7. Training yourself for safe multi-tasking (talking on the phone, eating, reading GPS screens, checking email, etc.)

  8. Keeping up with new driving and automotive information, (new gadgets, laws, surveys, safety studies, QDC databases and training techniques developed in other QDC groups)

  9. Etc.

QDCs are inexpensive instructional delivery mechanisms for all aspects of driving psychology and driver training in both private and commercial settings. Currently, QDCs exist only in experimental groups of traffic psychology students. As driving density and complexity increase while injuries and fatalities remain high, society will need to develop greater skill in the driving population. We foresee a future where skill-based license renewal will be required and will include QDC participation because it's an inexpensive and powerful delivery mechanism for universal and lifelong driver education.


QDCs can be Face-to-Face or Virtual. Face-to-face QDCs can be physically based in the family, neighborhood, or workplace. Virtual QDCs are asynchronous, telephone, Internet or Web-based interactive experiences. Members are not physically or temporally present but communicate on the telephone or electronically through email, Web forums and bulletin boards, online discussion groups, online chat rooms, etc. Other natural groupings:

  1. Dyadic QDCs are easy to set up between a driver and regular passengers, such as carpool mates or a long-term Partnership Driving

  2. A family QDC to promote safe and supportive driving attitudes in children, teenagers, and adults alike

  3. Court mandated QDCs for motivating and supervising problem drivers (see RoadRageous course below)

  4. School QDCs allow grouping younger and older children together, so that there may be a positive generational influence and connection, and help prepare the next generation of drivers to accept and support QDC membership as a lifelong involvement

  5. Professional QDCs for drivers of commercial fleet vehicles, trucks, police and emergency vehicles would reduce accident rates, citations, and costs for companies and government agencies

  6. Senior QDCs for older drivers would promote greater safety


It's important to meet regularly and keep attendance to motivate members not to skip. Prizes, diplomas, awards, and commendations may also help keep members involved. A rotating chair calls meetings and safeguards records for a determined period. There is no limit to how long a QDC may continue. Eventually, national and local QDC conferences, newsletters, and databases may arise. We predict that the second century of car society will not end before QDCs will be part of the normal lifelong career of every driver in all industrialized countries.

Related article:

Two concept Papers: Instituting a Program of Lifelong Traffic Safety Training and Promoting the Spread of Quality Driving Circles (QDC) for Post-Licensing Driver Self-improvement Programs


Note: For references and additional details, please consult our book: Leon James and Diane Nahl. Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000), or the articles on our Web site.


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