Hundreds apply for parent-taught driver’s education under new law

By: - July 26, 2021 4:01 pm

Hundreds of Iowa parents are set to take advantage of a new law allowing them to teach driver’s education to their own children. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Parent-taught driver’s education applications are skyrocketing in Iowa after a bill that expanded the option was enacted earlier this month.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has seen an exponential increase in inquiries about parent-taught options and applications to begin driver’s education from home, said Driver Education Program Coordinator Steve Stonehocker.

“Before the law changed, we were averaging 45, 50 applications per month for the parent-taught program, and that was all homeschooled families,” he said. “That started increasing at the end of June … We’re on pace for over 580 (applications) for July. That’s an over 900% increase in the program.” 

Stonehocker said it’s too early to know if this initial influx of applications is a bubble or if the increase will be more permanent. Either way, he said the DOT is watching the numbers closely to understand the “ripple effect” of Senate File 546

The bill adapts Iowa law to expand parent-taught driver education to all students, regardless of if they are homeschooled or not. Eight other states have similar bills, including Missouri and Oregon. 

State Rep. Joel Fry is a Republican from Osceola. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, introduced the bill in the Iowa House. During debate in April, he said he’s heard from his constituents that parents want to teach their children to drive on their own, especially with the added complications of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Many students today are behind in their driver’s education because they couldn’t get into the school system due to COVID or the schools that didn’t come back to in-person learning,” he said. “So, today we’re trying to make it easier, safer, and the opportunity exists for parents and their students to obtain their driver’s license.”

Law may affect private driver’s ed businesses

Iowa is home to more than 50 private driver’s education schools and community college driving programs. 

Street Smarts, a company that teaches thousands of Iowa students across the state to drive, has yet to feel much effect from this legislation, said Personnel Manager and Driving Instructor Ed Jennings. However, he said that might not be the case for all Iowa-based programs.

“I don’t really see it affecting us, but smaller driver’s ed companies in rural Iowa that maybe have a few instructors, a few cars, and a few hundred kids a year will feel it a bit more,” he said. 

There have been more questions about the parent-taught options versus privately taught driver’s education, he said. A handful of parents have opted for their students to drop out of Street Smarts classes, he said, in favor of the parent-taught option. 

Drive With Cops student driving car is seen outside the business’s Urbandale location. (Photo by Eleanor Hildebrandt/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Drive With Cops, an eight-year-old driver’s education program based in Urbandale, is also seeing students continue to sign up in similar numbers. Owner Dave Kopp said privately taught options still remain popular in the Des Moines metro.

“It’s more convenient to drop your child off, let the professionals teach, and then you pick them up and work with them to continue to build on what they’re learning,” he said. “And then only take them to the DOT to get their license, not to take more tests.” 

Demand for driving tests expected to increase

With parent-taught driver’s education, students do not earn waivers for the driving test at the DOT, like they do from private driver’s education classes. This will lead to an increase in the number of tests needed, Stonehocker said. 

“Over 93% of students that go through the traditional driver education programs are able to receive a completion and waiver of that test,” he said. “So once they complete the program with our certified instructors, they’re able to get their license without a driving test most often, but obviously it’s going to be different with the parents teaching.”

The DOT has not yet seen a change in demand for tests, Stonehocker said, because the students taking parent-taught driver’s ed who are not homeschooled will not complete the online course they are required to take for three more weeks. 

Students have to make an appointment to take a driving test at one of the 19 DOT branches across the state, because of COVID-19. The pandemic has already caused some backup for these tests, Stonehocker said, which will potentially increase, depending on when and how many completions of parent-taught driver’s education the department receives. 

Concerns about future road safety

When Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, heard about Senate File 546, his first concern was maintaining safe roads in the state. Lohse was the only Republican in the Iowa House to vote against the bill.

State Rep. Brian Lohse is a Republican from Bondurant. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“To me, driver’s education is a vital part of the process of learning how to drive, especially in a state where you start driving when you’re 14,” he said. “ … If a parent doesn’t do what they need to do to properly instruct, and to give them (students) the experience, I think it could lead to more accidents and kids who don’t have the (driving) skill set,” he said. 

Lohse isn’t alone in this concern. Kopp and Jennings both have reservations about how safe parent-taught drivers will be on the road. Jennings said he is concerned that parents who are not homeschooling their children might have more trouble teaching their students behind the wheel. 

“In our classes, a lot of them (instructors) are teachers, so they know how to communicate with students well,” he said. “They know to maybe not do things that might frustrate them (students), like a parent might.”

After teaching students for over a decade, Jennings said he’s heard from students who are more nervous when they drive with parents than when they drive with instructors. He said adding more stress to the learning process is not going to benefit Iowans or road safety. 

Kopp is concerned about parents teaching their students bad habits, like road rage or distracted driving. He said some parents might not teach all of the state laws of driving like certified instructors do because they don’t know all of them. 

“When driving, you need a strong foundation,” he said. “Parents need to help build on that foundation, but if you don’t have a strong foundation, the building is not going to be solid … We’re not going to make it (roads) a safer place to be by having parents teach their kids.”

Another aspect of driver’s education that isn’t available with parent-taught options, he said, is the observation portion of the class that students have when their driver’s ed partners are driving. 

Fry said parents have a vested interest in teaching their children to drive safely because they incur the cost of insurance if they get into accidents or are pulled over. In response to his colleagues’ concerns during debate, he said parents are fully capable of teaching their children to drive.

“I also believe that parents do have the ability to teach their children in many different ways, many different subjects,” he said. “I, for one, have now had the privilege of teaching four children driver’s ed in my own family. And I can tell you the amount of time that I spent with my child in driver’s education far outweighs the amount of time I received when I went through driver’s education in the school system.”

Regardless of how many parents enlist in parent-taught driver’s education, the DOT plans to look at the differences between parent-taught and privately taught young drivers, Stonehocker said. 

He encourages parents to make their students’ driver’s education decisions carefully after the passing of Senate File 546.

“This is something that could potentially affect their children for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Especially in Iowa, in a rural state, we drive every day of our lives. If parents decide to go this route, they need to be prepared to put the time and effort into making sure they’re helping create safe drivers.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a third-year student at the University of Iowa where she studies journalism and mass communication and global health studies. She worked as a news reporter covering shared governance and higher education and a digital producer for The Daily Iowan since her freshman year. In the fall, she will return to the paper as a news editor. As a second-year, she hosted and co-produced "On The Record", the DI's news podcast that was named Best Podcast by the Iowa Newspaper Association.