State Drivers Manuals still can’t be trusted in the USA – but they ARE improving!

Very recently, the vast majority of the information in U.S. state drivers’ manuals was not only inadequate in it’s quantity, but ridiculously, a lot of it was so bad that it was dangerous.  More recently, however, the standard has started to improve and farther down this article we will tell you how and why.

The use of bridge shadows, even on dull days, is a great way to check you have at least a three-second following distance. [Copyright image.]

Just today, the Fargo Police Department posted some good advice on their Facebook page about using safe distances to follow other vehicles. Their advice included this:

According to the North Dakota DL manual, the ‘three-second rule’ is a way to measure the distance that you should use as a cushion when following another vehicle. Here is how it works:

  • Pick a shadow, mark, or object on or near the road ahead;
  • When the rear bumper of the vehicle ahead of you passes the mark, start counting the seconds it takes you to reach the same spot. Count ‘one-thousand-and-one, one thousand-and-two, one-thousand-and-three;
  • If you reach the spot before you count ‘one thousand-and-three,’ you are following too closely.

[End of excerpt from Fargo Police]

When to use headlights for best safety is a subject many state drivers manuals still get terribly wrong. By various state laws, lights were not required when this photograph was taken, but you did instantly see all FOUR vehicles, right?! (Copyright image.)

One of the reasons for this post is to show readers that key people in the Road Safety USA team have been working hard, at high levels, for decades to help reduce road deaths, and that RS-USA has been formed specifically to pursue this crucial goal, and importantly, to help other people to do likewise.

Is this really necessary? Isn’t highway safety in the USA good enough?

Sadly, for many decades, America has consistently been one of the very worst performers in this field among the thirty-or-so countries that are classed as developed nations, and the result is that about 25,000 ‘extra’ people are killed on U.S. roads each year than would be the case if America was a top performer…. If you don’t think that is scandalous, we do! [See the situation in 2019 here.]

A huge number of serious arm and facial injuries could be prevented by teaching young drivers that it is NOT how you hold the wheel that matters most in this context but how you TURN it — hint: it’s not the way that American drivers do it! But “8 & 4” is bad advice, too. (Copyright image.)

Let me now switch to write as “I” rather than “we.”

Back in 2003, I read two state drivers’ manuals, namely Massachusetts and New York, and I was stunned by the very low standard of the information. As a result, over the next few years, I started reading more and more manuals from other states, too.

There were so many errors, many of which were actually dangerous, that I started contacting the head DMV offices in the respective states and I very politely asked to talk to the relevant people. Suffice it to say that my telephone calls were all put onto ‘eternal hold’ and like my subsequent e-mails and regular letters never received replies… not one; not ever.

In light of that astonishingly unprofessional behavior, I made up my mind to publicize the dreadful standard of the state drivers’ manuals, and to do so as publicly as possible to bring it to the attention of parents who rightly and understandably want their teens and older kids to be safe when driving.

As a result, I wrote a research paper for which I chose the deliberately pugnacious title of ‘State Drivers’ Manuals can Kill Your Kids!‘ (The paper is still available now, in 2020, but the SAE — see below — has the right to charge a small fee for it, none of which goes to me.)

Excerpt from original paper

The paper was peer-reviewed by two people qualified in road safety to PhD level and was then published by the Society of Automotive Engineers [SAE] at their World Congress in Detroit, in 2007. By audience review, it was picked as one of the top five percent of more than 700 papers published that year — a delightful outcome that I would never have dared expect.

Just one of many recommendations in the paper was the need for a following gap of at least three seconds, based upon excellent research into the reaction times of typical adult drivers, and as can be seen above, North Dakota — among other states — has now published this crash-reducing guideline. The old advice in many states used to include old-time nonsense about ‘car lengths,’ which had always been dangerously inadequate.

So now we get to the heart of this article!

Since publication of that research paper, more and more states have increasingly been including advice from it, and all of that advice was based on two critical sources: empirical research and global best practices.

Do the states acknowledge the research paper as their source? Do they heck, but there simply was no other source from which so many improvements in various manuals could have come. And in any event it is not the acknowledgement that matters, it is the safer information for young drivers.

This is just one example of how the caring and determined people at Road Safety USA have helped and will continue to help the American people get the much safer road travel that they — meaning YOU — deserve, and which sadly is still so long overdue.


The writer: Eddie Wren is the executive director of Road Safety USA and this year has been elected chairman of the board. He is also the chief instructor for Advanced Drivers of North America. He has worked internationally in various aspects of highway safety for a total of 46 years, including a previous career as a traffic patrol police officer. His detailed résumé is available here.


Road Safety USA is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization covering the whole of the USA and based at Albany, NY. Please donate to help us with our lifesaving work.

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