Whether you’re learning the rules of the road for the first time or are looking to up your skills behind the wheel, you’ll need a driving school. Finding one that suits your needs will take more than a quick search for what’s nearby — you’ll need to devote time to researching potential companies.
It’s important to dive deep into curriculums and vet certifications to ensure that you’re getting the best driving education possible. But don’t worry — we’re here to walk you through the key factors you’ll want to consider when searching for a driving school or safety course. Start by collecting a list of local driving schools, either by simple Google search or from your state’s Department of Licensing digital directory. After you’ve done some early research, we also recommend visiting the driving school to ask questions, check out the classroom and vehicles, and get a sense of its customer care.
What to Look for in a Driving School
Certifications and licenses
You’ll want to start your research by ensuring that the driving school is licensed by your state’s Department of Licensing (DOL). Typically, state DOLs will vet for appropriate business licenses, valid insurance for the school and its vehicles, safe and registered vehicles, thorough instructor onboarding, and curriculum standards. Essentially, a state license does half the work for you.
Each driving school instructor has to be individually certified as well. They must attend a training school, pass a knowledge exam, undergo background checks and fingerprinting, and log 100 hours of training. Per state requirements, instructor licenses must be visibly displayed at the driving school. If you don’t see them when you visit, be sure to ask.
“Driving coaches need to be competent in all aspects of vehicle dynamics in all types of vehicles — front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, SUVs and full-size vans down to small economy and sports cars.”
National Program Director of Tire Rack Street Survival
If you want to go a step further, you may choose to consult other organizations that help driving schools and instructors maintain modern knowledge of evolving skills and technique, like the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association and The Driving School Association of the Americas. You can check their directories for schools near you, but don’t sweat it if there aren’t any; the process of acquiring a state license is typically extensive, so additional backing by organizations like these isn’t a requirement for a reputable driving school.
Just because a driving school has been certified doesn’t mean its slate is clean. Make sure to check if a driving school has received any kind of disciplinary action for violating licensing rules or laws. You can find this information on your state’s DOL site, usually under a section about licensing professions. A driving school can be reprimanded for any form of unprofessional conduct, for refusing to cooperate with annual audits, for violating curriculum standards, and more.
If the action is severe enough, the school’s license can be revoked. Even if a driving school manages to return to good standing with the DOL, we’d still warn against an establishment with any history of disciplinary action.
Each state has different requirements for driving school curriculums and structure, especially for teen drivers. Start by checking with your state’s DOL to know the exact requirements your driving school has to meet (and hopefully exceed).
For example, Washington State requires:
- A total of 30 hours of classroom instruction, with a maximum of two hours per day
- A minimum of six hours of practice driving, with a maximum of one hour per day
- A minimum of one hour of behind-the-wheel observation
- 50 hours of logged out-of-class practice (including 10 hours at night) with parents
Request a copy of the curriculum details from the driving school and compare it with state requirements. Depending on the driving student, you may also choose to look for extras like video and visual aids to accommodate different styles of learning.
“Newer curriculums will also focus on self-assessment and reflection of learning. The students will only be in training for a few months and up to a year practicing before going onto the roadway by themselves. Teaching them to self-reflect on topics they were taught in driver’s education can help them years down the road when something happens.”
Owner of 911 Driving School in Lakewood and Tacoma, Washington
If you choose to visit the school before signing up, ask detailed questions about the philosophy behind the instruction at the driving school. Is the course structured around lectures? Or are there more comprehensive goals around coaching? We recommend looking for the latter. Look for signs that the school goes beyond the rules and laws of driving and prioritizes teaching students mental skills and real-world preparedness.
Bill Wade, the National Program Director of Tire Rack Street Survival, advocates for balanced training, which is “ensuring that a driver’s confidence level does not exceed or significantly lag behind their skill level. We know what a driver with more confidence than driving skill will do. And a driver with more skill than confidence will likely do nothing when faced with some type of emergency.”
Giving students a chance to make mistakes and coaching them through the correction process will help produce more independent and prepared drivers. Wade told us that at his school, they “give the students a chance to get it wrong, make the wrong move that spins the car around, not brake hard enough and hit the cone that represents another car, etc… and have them do it over and over until they get it right.” Wade calls this a “Safe Driving Mindset.” That may sound scary, but it’s the safest way for a student driver to become comfortable and skilled in the complex and adverse situations they’ll likely face in real life.
You won’t truly know what it’s like to attend a specific driving school until you do. Seeking out reviews from actual customers can tell you more about a driving school than a certification alone. Ask your community, family, and friends about which driving schools they’ve attended and what they did or didn’t like about them. You can request references from the school itself or check online ratings on Yelp or Google.
We also recommend looking up the driving school on the Better Business Bureau (BBB) website. On BBB, you’ll find ratings, compliments, and complaints about the business, as well as any response or follow-up actions. This is a great way to gather information on how the driving school may handle communications, scheduling, billing, disputes, instructor friendliness, and general customer service.
Policies and details
There are also some not-so-obvious details that you’ll want to vet when choosing your driving school. Like driving, life is unpredictable; it’s important to ask about contacts, refund policies, protocol for making up missed classes, remedial training, and private lessons.
Inquiring about the level of parent involvement is also key for teen drivers. Things like hand positions and brake pumping have changed since many parents were taught to drive. Even the distractions drivers face are different. Having two-way communication with the parents and school is crucial for the student driver’s out-of-class practice. Parents may seek briefings on the scheduled curriculum, refreshers on new rules, practice assignments that are relevant to the student’s current class topic, or updates on skills the student may need extra help with.
Jeff Westover, owner of several 911 Driving Schools in Washington state, told us, “Good driving schools should always have a ‘parent night’ where parents are invited to sit in class and learn of the process their teenager is about to go through. It should explain the laws and the new ways driver’s education is being taught versus when the parent went through driver’s education.” Westover also recommends asking if parents are allowed to sit in on classes or join the lesson on driving days.
You’ll also want to research classroom logistics, like the student-to-teacher ratio (we wouldn’t recommend more than 25-to-1) and how often the presentations are updated. For example, if a school is still using VHS videotapes, it’s likely that the content is just as old as the technology.
Our experts also recommend examining the condition and type of vehicles used. Westover told us that “the instruction vehicles used at the driving schools should be newer vehicles (with less than 100,000 miles) that are conducive for driver’s education, meaning that they do not have large blind spots and are of average size. Too small of a vehicle and it makes it uncomfortable for the observing students in the rear seat. Too large of a vehicle and it becomes intimidating to the students to drive.” He also said to check for good tire tread, no damage, and clear markings that the vehicle is for student instruction. In addition, ask if the school vehicles are regularly inspected, if they have liability insurance, and if there is an option for your student to learn in their own vehicle.
Enrolling in a driving school can qualify you for discounts with your auto insurance provider. And this premium break doesn’t only apply to first-time drivers and teens; licensed drivers can often take an additional defensive driving course and qualify for a discount, too (though sometimes this is limited to people age 55 and older). Some providers may even offer discounts on the driving course. Liberty Mutual, for example, offers a coupon code for teenSmart, a driving course designed around simulations. Because these safety courses statistically result in fewer collisions (and thus fewer claims), most insurance providers will offer incentives for enrolling. Check with your car insurance provider for discounts and make sure you’re aware of any requirements that may influence which driving course you choose.
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