Boomers Couldn’t Wait to Get Behind the Wheel

It was this time of year — springtime — when Mister Boomer, like all the teen boomers in his area, took Driver’s Education classes at his local high school. In the 1960s, personal transport trumped public transportation every time. Gas was cheap and cars affordable — so as soon as you could, you got your driver’s license.

The first driver’s education classes offered were conducted in England by a private business, in 1910. In the U.S., it was the spring of 1935 when driver’s education instruction was offered to young students in the State College Area School District in north-central Pennsylvania. One year later President Roosevelt’s New Deal had spawned the WPA, which gave the district $200 to pay for current expenses and further develop the course. By 1940 high school students in the district were required to take driver’s education. From there, the idea slowly spread across the country.

Prior to World War II, state and county roads were the major arteries, so driving was mostly a local affair. Therefore, despite Pennsylvania’s effort to standardize driver’s education and make it mandatory for its high school students, learning to drive was more often than not accomplished with family and friends. The War actually gave a good many men their first chance to drive, so many more came back having learned driving skills. By the time President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was complete, the car was king, and boomers were about to grow into that succession.

In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, it was just another rite of passage; something you just did as soon as you were of age. in Mister B’s case, the class was an after-hours offering on Saturdays. After a couple of weeks of classroom training on road regulations, the remaining weeks were spent practicing driving. There were four students assigned per car, with the instructor sitting in the passenger seat. He — instructors were all men — had a second brake pedal, but no steering wheel.

Mister B walked a mile-and-a-half to the high school those spring-into-summer mornings for his 7:30 a.m. class. The instructor chose the order of when each student would drive, always starting and stopping in the school’s parking lot. Mister B tended to be third or fourth in line, so he got to observe the mistakes and occasional cringe-worthy actions of his fellow students.

There were young ladies and another young man assigned to Mister B’s car. We bonded briefly by the very fact that we were all clueless and more or less like deer in the headlights. Nonetheless, the instructor was, for the most part, patient and tried not to use his brake. In all the classes, Mister B only recalls him using it once, when one of the girls was driving. In this pre-seatbelt era for back seats, Mister B and the others lurched forward when, after the instructors escalating his cries of, “Slow down … turn … NO!” went unheeded and he jammed the brakes as the car hit the curb on the side of the road.

Despite the trauma and drama of the practices, all the students made it to the end. The class was arranged to provide a state road test as its final. Pass it, and you’d get your 30-day learner’s permit, a requirement before a driver’s license. Mister B passed, and a week later, went down to the police station with his father to get his permit.

The next step would be to practice driving with his father in the car — a task more daunting than driving with an unknown instructor. Mister B only went out twice with his father, probably the minimum requirement. He didn’t want to look as tentative a driver as he was in front of his father — who was an accomplished driver, but not always the most patient of men. After observing a few episodes of gritted teeth, it was apparent to Mister B that his father wanted him to succeed very badly. They lived in a car culture and this was a skill that would be a necessity.

When the 30-day period had passed, it was his father who suggested they go to get his license. back at the police station. It was a formality at that point: turn over the learner’s permit, with his father’s signature verifying his practice, pay a few dollars and flash! a picture was taken. A new piece of cardboard was issued as a temporary license until the state-issued license would arrive in the mail a few weeks later.

Many boomers went from riding bicycles to owning their first car as soon as they got their driver’s license.

Today it is no longer unusual for a student leaving college to have never held a driver’s license. Teens don’t seem to universally regard a license as the mandatory item it was when boomers were that age. Many get their license only when it becomes a necessity. Driver’s Education courses are required now in most states, but a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration discovered that 1 in 5 teens do not have any driver’s education prior to getting a license. The goal of Driver’s Education instruction has always been to reduce traffic fatalities, especially in the under 21 age group. The NHTSA study states, however, that there has never been conclusive evidence that formal Driver’s Education classes reduce the risk of fatalities. However, for Mister B and many boomers, those classes were his introduction to driving, and he couldn’t see it happening any other way.

What memories of Driver’s Ed do you have, boomers?