IIl. Students at Risk in Old, Poorly Rated Driver’s Ed Cars

September 20, 2011

Many Illinois students are learning to drive in cars that have low safety ratings or are more than a decade old, potentially putting them at risk as cash-strapped school districts place a bigger priority on cost and fuel mileage, a newspaper reported.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the newspaper and Cars.com analyzed safety data on about 1,300 driver’s education cars in nearly 60 districts and found that ratings vary widely depending on where students live.

Small cars and those with poor and marginal crash-test ratings were common, and some districts didn’t opt for side air bags when they’re available, the newspaper reported. What’s more, few districts considered safety ratings when purchasing their cars.

Chicago Public School students learn in some of the oldest and worst-rated cars in the state. Almost half of the district’s fleet of 163 cars are pre-2000 Plymouth Breezes, Neons and Chevrolet Cavaliers, which got poor highway safety institute ratings, and the oldest of the 113 cars used on the road is a 1990 Dodge Shadow, the newspaper reported.

The newest car that the district uses is a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt, a small car with poor side-crash ratings. None of the cars has side air bags.

Calvin Davis, driver’s education director for Chicago Public Schools, said he knows many older cars needed to be replaced but wasn’t aware of their crash-test ratings.

“It they’re unsafe, we don’t want to use them,” Davis said, adding that the district hopes to replace 20 to 40 cars this fall.

Students at Joliet Township High School District 204 use nine cars, including 1998 and 1999 Chevrolet Luminas.

“When you’re talking about a 1998, and here we are (nearly) in 2012, you’re dealing with a vehicle that’s almost 14 years old,” said Richard Pagliaro, assistant superintendent for business and personnel. “Are we happy with that? No, not necessarily. But do we have the resources to replace it right now? No.”

James Archambeau, president of the Illinois High School and College Driver Education Association, said cars should be at least midsize and shouldn’t be more than 10 years old.

Illinois high school districts are required by law to offer driver’s education classes, but there appear to be no laws setting a minimum safety standard for the vehicles, the Tribune reported.

The Illinois State Board of Education reimburses districts for part of the program’s cost but does not monitor cars for compliance and doesn’t require them to meet a safety benchmark, a spokeswoman said. The secretary of state’s office doesn’t set safety standards either, but requires the Illinois Department of Transportation to inspect cars used for driver’s education by private companies twice a year.

Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, said the board of education and the secretary of state should join forces to establish criteria for cars used in driver’s education.

“It’s a scattershot process that needs to be repaired immediately,” Garrett said. “You don’t want these young drivers in cars that don’t have air bags or that are 10 or 15 years old and frankly are unsafe.”

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