IUP’s Center for Rural Health and Safety Executive Director Louis Pesci and Department of Psychology professor Timothy Runge have received more than $1 million over the past three years from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to continue a project to help to make training of high school age drivers more effective.

The project, “Novice Driver Statewide Program Support,” began in October 2018 with an initial grant of $490,000. The project was renewed for a second year with grant funds totaling $225,000. The project was renewed for this third year with a grant of $300,000.

Pesci and Runge are co-investigators for the grant. The project team includes Kevin Wolford from the Center, who is the project director, and Kathleen Ammerman, a current doctoral candidate in IUP’s School Psychology program, who served as assistant director of the project.

The ultimate goal of the project is to reduce the number of drivers aged 16 to 20 in all fatal crashes to 9.9 percent by 2025; this percentage in 2017 was 11.4 percent. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States, according to national statistics, and drivers 16 to 20 years old have the highest involvement in fatal crashes of any age group.

One of the initial phases of the project included gathering data from six school districts in central and western Pennsylvania related to seatbelt use and cell phone use by high school drivers. Wolford and Ammerman did the bulk of the on-site data collection, visiting high schools and observing behaviors of student drivers as they arrived and left the school buildings.

The ongoing project includes new training and tools for driver education instructors and driver mentors (parents and others who are teaching new drivers). Using the observational data they gathered, the researchers aim to change behaviors as well as educate new drivers with this project.

For the past 13 years, Runge has provided an analysis of existing mental health resources for Pennsylvania school districts for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. He has also worked with a Pennsylvania Department of Education initiative, School-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS), a framework designed to enhance students' understanding of behavior expectations at school.

“Because of his connections with the Department of Education, and his work with the SWPBIS, Runge was exactly the right choice to collaborate on this project,” Pesci said. “Knowledge and behaviors are not the same; for example, you can know that seat belts save lives, but still not use your seat belt,” he said. “National research has shown that driver education for beginning drivers does a good job at teaching driving skills but has not definitively been shown to reduce the number of crashes or crash rate. We’re trying to change that through this project.”

As part of the SWPBIS program, teachers and students develop an understanding of the appropriate disciplinary responses for inappropriate behaviors through schools providing rewards of all types to students who exhibit positive behaviors. These rewards can range from certificates of recognition to gift certificates to the school store.

“It’s not a curriculum, but it’s a way to teach and reinforce positive behaviors so that students can focus on academics,” Runge said. “This effort is moderately common in elementary schools but far less common in high schools—only about 50 high schools in Pennsylvania use SWPBIS, and none of them, when we started our data gathering, extended this reward system to driver behavior.”

There are four of the six schools that the project coordinators have identified that are using SWPBIS. As part of the grant, these four schools were asked—and agreed—to extend recognition of good driving behaviors to students as part of their SWPBIS program, Pesci and Runge said.

“This work is to reinforce good driver behaviors with schools and students that are already familiar with the program,” Pesci said. “Our hypothesis is that if you specifically teach and reinforce safe driver behaviors, you can change behaviors.”

The initial phase of the project included surveying driver education instructors to examine the current state of driver education in Pennsylvania public schools. Results of this survey were published by the group in the fall-winter 2020 Pennsylvania Educational Leadership newsletter.

“One of the findings of the survey was that only 20 percent of driver education instructors in Pennsylvania responding to the survey have completed a college course in driver education,” Pesci said.

IUP is the last remaining school in Pennsylvania that provides driver education training leading to certification for driver education instructors. Driver education is not mandatory in Pennsylvania school districts.

“While our overall goal is to improve driver education by changing behaviors, we also want to maintain the high quality of our driver education training,” Pesci said. “We’ve added new components to our curriculum and to our materials available on our website about seat-belt use and about the use of cell phones while driving.”

Through the project, the researchers will also gather observational data from the six participating school districts to determine whether the distribution of “rewards” through the SWPBIS program is changing new driver behaviors.

“We would also like to increase the number of public schools offering driver education using the Perceptual Driving Program and Stop-Think-Go Decision curriculums offered through the IUP curriculum,” Wolford said.

“The Perceptual Driving Program has been in use for 40 years in many different iterations and in a lot of different formats,” he said. “We’re looking now at updating it to a more digital-friendly format. The ‘Stop-Think-Go’ decision-making process is closely related to the SWPBIS program, encouraging young drivers to change behaviors related to decision making.”

The Stop-Think-Go program was developed many years ago by IUP faculty, and it continues to be part of the driver education curriculum, but has been updated by members of the IUP Center for Rural Health and Safety.

“There’s nothing wrong with understanding the driver instruction manual—that’s a very important part of the driver education process—but the Perceptual Driving Program is designed to help new drivers evaluate the roadway situation, determine if there is a risk, and then make good choices related to understanding the risks of those choices,” Pesci said.

The grant also funds a number of ongoing initiatives by IUP, including:

  • Providing quarterly newsletters and other information to Community Traffic Safety Project officers to help these officers to create behavioral changes in local schools. These officers are employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in regions throughout Pennsylvania.

  • Provide resources and/or continuing education for driver education teachers, to include how to incorporate parents into driver education, conducting mandatory parent orientation classes, latest technology with feedback to parents, and how to integrate driver education with Graduated Drivers Licensing laws.

  • Inform driver educators of the communication and informational opportunities at the PennDOT Spring Highway Safety Conferences.

  • Continue newsletter distribution electronically to public school driver educators.

  • Maintain web-based media sites.

  • Implement Perceptual Driving Program training sessions for driver education instructors and continue established sessions for CTSP officers; training would involve both cognitive and hands-on sessions with driver training vehicles on a closed driving course.

  • Inquire and continue documentation from participating driver education instructors using with previously applied tracking methods to do fidelity checks of instructional use of provided educational materials: those being the use of required sections of the Perceptual Program, the Stop-Think-Go Decision Making Model, and SWPBIS implementations.

  • Instruct and implement Stop-Think-Go Decision Making program with CTSP personnel.