The USA’s first automotive traffic fatality occured at the end of the 19th century in 1899. Fatalities soon increased up to around 15,000 per year at the beginning of the 1920’s. This was death on an industrial scale compared to the era of horse drawn transport, so an increase in safety while driving an automobile needed to become a priority.
Groups like the Eno Foundation for Highway Traffic Regulation and the Highway Education Board formed to promote highway safety in 1922 and “a general code of highway traffic regulation was adapted based on the continuation of work done by the Council of National Defense.”
These good intentions had little effect, with deaths doubling to 30,000 per annum by the beginning of the 1930’s. So in 1934 an individual decided to do something about reducing traffic accidents with the development of a high school driver education course.
Amos Earl Neyhart (pronounced NIGH-hart), assistant professor of industrial engineering at Penn State University initiated “the first organized high school driver education course at State College High School, State College, Pennsylvania.”
Apparently Neyhart decided it was time to do something about the issue of bad driving, after a drunk driver hit his parked car.
“There seems to be much confusion today as to who is responsible for the tragedy of our modern transportation system on public highways,” Neyhart wrote. “Some blame our lawmakers for not enacting sufficient laws to curb this onslaught. Others believe the answer lies in rigid enforcement of our many existing laws. Others are confident that it is the judges’ fault because they are too easy with their sentences. Still others are confident that if all our highways were straight and the direction of travel separated, presto, the problem would be solved immediately.”
In his mind, Neyhart believed that the frequency of traffic related accidents was largely due to the fact that “at the present time, the effort put forth in teaching new drivers is very small.” And so on February 17, 1934, he began teaching safe driving practices to students at State College Area High School in his own car, a 1929 Graham-Paige 829.
In 1934, he wrote the two textbook for such classes, The Safe Operation of an Automobile, as well as the Instructors Guide-Book – For Training Drivers For Emergency Driving, meant to prepare driver’s education teachers on how to conduct their classes.
Neyhart’s first concern with implementing driver education courses in schools was determining whether or not instructors possessed the necessary qualifications needed to fulfill their job requirements.
In his Instructors Guide Book – For Training Drivers For Emergency Driving, Neyhart advises instructors to:
- volunteer for at least forty hours of training
- be willing to use their own car and tires no less than five hours a week
- be between the ages eighteen and fifty, have a valid driver’s license
- have driven at least 3000 miles in the last three years
- pass a diagnostic road test to show proficiency in handling a vehicle under varied driving conditions
- and have good hearing and vision
“Such drivers,” Neyhart explains, “must know much more than the average driver about motor vehicles so that they can intelligently maintain their own automobile or motor corps equipment and even make certain emergency repairs on the road.”
Incredible though it might seem, these qualifications are stricter than modern day ones in some ways in that they demand an instructor have driven a minimum milage. Neyhart stressed the importance of teens developing the correct driving habits and skills. “Youth is eager and anxious to learn” Neyhart argues; “Both muscle and mind are pliable,” and thus there are many factors the instructor must consider in training young drivers. Among these were:
- Does the length of the teacher’s driving experience have an appreciable effect on the accidents of the learner?
- What effect has the teacher’s style of driving on the learner’s driving habits?
- Has the personal relationship of the instructor and learner any effect on proneness to accidents?
He went on to suggest that instructors be even-tempered, sympathetic, have unusual patience, and not be easily excited or angered. These are personality traits which are still just as essential today.
After a while the program came to be co-sponsored by both the American Automobile Association, who printed a booklet for “Training New Drivers – an explanation of a course of sportsmanlike driving in your high school”
…and Pontiac who supplied Pontiac Master 6 Cars fitted with dual controls for the footbrake and clutch.
Neyhart suggested that students in a driver education course need to take it seriously, paying attention to what the instructor has to say. In Neyhart’s later text, Instruction Book on the Safe Operation of a Motor Vehicle For Teachers and Learners, he states “The learner should realize that every careless and inattentive act on his part, not only endangers his life, but the lives of his passengers, pedestrians, and occupants of other vehicles.”
Neyhart believed that by making the course count for a credit rather than being an extra-curricular activity or club was one of the keys to successfully implementing driver education in schools. By 1940 his wish had been granted, as by then his ’30 and 6′ progam of 30 hours in the classroom and six behind the wheel was being recognized nationwide. It was additionally important that the course be placed early in the semester, prior to the students reaching the minimum driving age to ensure that minds could be influenced before going out on the road. As he stated, “In the adult world driving a car is definitely not a hobby.”
Learning about how a car works was also part of Amos Neyhart’s conception of drivers’ education. While modern cars are produced to fine tolerances and are largely very reliable, cars of that era were in need of constant attention, especially the brakes. By teaching basic mechanics Neyhart sought to confer on his students an understanding of mechanical sympathy that would help them to drive more smoothly and more safely.
As well as writing books Amos Neyhart also wrote a university thesis, The Relation Of The Training And Other Characteristics Of Automobile Drivers To Their Proneness To Accidents. He continued to be an influencer of driver training in the USA up the the Kennedy era of the 1960’s.
- “Amos Neyhart; Father of Driver Education Classes.” Los Angeles Times 21 Jul. 1990:28.
- Damon, Norman. “The Action Program for Highway Safety.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 320.1 (1958): 15-26.
- Eno, William Phelps. “Street Traffic Legislation and Regulation in the United States of America.” Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law 7.4 (1925): 238-247.
- Neyhart, Amos Earl, and Mary Helen Neyhart. AAA Instructor’s Guide Book for Training Drivers for Emergency Driving. Washington, DC: American Automobile Association, Traffic Engineering & Safety Dept., 1944.
- Neyhart, Amos Earl. Driver Education; the Key to Safe Operation of Motor Vehicles. Washington, DC: N.p., 1954.
- Neyhart, Amos E. The Driver. Washington, DC: American Automobile Association, 1936.
- Neyhart, Amos E. 1934. The Relation of the Training and Other Characteristics of Automobile Drivers to Their Proneness to Accidents. Masters Thesis, Pennsylvania State University, State College. 97 p.
All from Penn State University Archives