When Tashawn Deville was 16 and in driver’s education, she noticed something about the other students.

“Everybody in that class either had two-parent households or just had a more functional kind of home environment,” she said.

Deville, now 22, couldn’t relate. Growing up in foster care, she didn’t have parents to sign off on her forms or write her checks or take her out for practice drives. That she was in the class at all was thanks only to help she received from Treehouse, a nonprofit that works with people in foster care. At up to $800, a driver’s ed course was too expensive to afford on her own.

Driver’s education is required to get a license at 16 or 17, but not at 18 and older. It used to be offered in nearly every public school district in Washington. But in 2000, that began to change, when the state Legislature phased out most — and then in 2002, all — funding for the courses.

What occurred over the next two decades was a massive shift in traffic safety education from the public realm to the private, with a drop in enrollment that followed. The privatization of driver’s ed meant those without extra money — often from communities of color — couldn’t afford the chance to become a safer driver.

Now, as lawmakers struggle to confront the state’s increasingly deadly roads, they are revisiting the implications of that change.


Young people are responsible for a disproportionate number of serious and fatal crashes. That is particularly true among those who never took a traffic safety course.

State data shows young drivers who don’t receive driver’s ed are unfortunately some of the most likely in the whole state to be involved in the fatal and serious crashes,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission estimates those who had not completed a course had a 70% higher rate of injury or death. Notably, people who got their license at 18 were 50% more likely to get into a crash in their first year of driving than those who got their license at 16.

Legislators are now considering two bills in response. Senate Bill 5583 would require that anyone 25 or younger complete a class before qualifying for a license. It could get a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday. Senate Bill 5430 would provide vouchers to anyone who can’t afford the cost.

In a legislative session chock full of traffic-safety bills, Liias, views requiring and increasing access to traffic safety courses as one of his two top priorities, along with lowering the blood alcohol limit. “Driver’s ed isn’t barely having an impact,” he said. “It’s having a pretty significant impact.”


In 1998, 321 high schools in 244 districts offered courses in traffic safety, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. But in the years that followed, as the economy soured and education reform went national, priorities shifted. In 2000, the dedicated pool of dollars for driver’s education was moved into the general fund and then quickly slashed in 2001. In 2002, the Legislature let the rest of the funding lapse completely.


Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, was in the House at the time and sponsored a bill in 2002 that would have kept some dollars in place. The proposal died as schools and lawmakers turned their attention elsewhere.

“Schools were kind of having to make some tough decisions, whether they were going to fund some core services,” he recalled.

Without funding from the state, schools swiftly began dropping their driver’s ed courses. By 2010, the number of classes offered in public schools was down to 111. Last year, there were 34. Where in 1998, two-thirds of young people received driver’s ed through their school, in 2022, only 3% did, according to data from the state Department of Licensing. The other 97% took the course in private, for-profit schools.

Facing the cost of a private course, more young people now wait until they’re 18 to get a license, when a class is no longer required. Nearly 15,000 fewer took driver’s ed — in either private or public schools — last year than in 1998, according to OSPI data, even as the state has seen enormous population growth.

Among people 25 and under who received their license between 2016 and 2020, just 44% had completed a driver’s ed course, according to the traffic safety commission.

Although the state doesn’t track participation by race or income, a 2020 survey from the safety commission shows nonwhite young people are more likely to wait until they’re 18 to get a license, with more than half citing cost as the reason.


At the same time, Black, Hispanic and Native young people are disproportionately represented in the state’s fatal crashes. For ages 15-24, the rates of traffic deaths among Black people are roughly 20% higher than among whites; for Hispanic people it’s around 34% higher; and among Native people it’s more than 300% higher.

“They’re being sorted into that higher risk category because of that financial barrier,” said Mark McKechnie, external relations director for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.


For Deville, getting a license meant she no longer relied on an overworked social worker to get what she needed.

“It’s not as though you can just call him up and say, ‘Hey, I need to go to the store’ or ‘Hey, take me to go get some tampons’ or “Hey, I need to go to this doctor’s appointment,’ ” Deville said.

Since 2018, Treehouse, a well-known nonprofit that supports foster youth, has received state funding to help its young people get their licenses. It’s an important program, said Sarah Mazur, program director at Treehouse, because it opens opportunities to foster youth, especially those living in areas with poor public transportation.

There’s also a safety aspect to it, she said.

“We are very aware of the number of fatalities on the road for young adults,” she said. “And our youth in general are just higher risk because they may be highly mobile, they may be moving from one place to another, they may need more support than someone who’s not experiencing foster care.”


Deville, the middle school program manager for Tacoma’s Peace Community Center, sees herself as a safe driver — her friends razz her sometimes about being overly cautious — which she says is, in part, due to the course she took.

“It really put in the back of my mind that this is a responsibility, and it is something that I need to take seriously when I am on the road,” she said.


Around the time Washington began cutting its driver’s ed funding, public opinion about its effectiveness was low. Several high-profile studies suggested it did little to reduce the number of crashes.

Some recent studies have shifted that view while others have come to a more ambiguous conclusion. A 2015 examination of more than 150,000 teen drivers by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that taking a course decreased risk of a serious or fatal crash by 24%. AAA, meanwhile, found it did decrease the likelihood of a serious crash, but modestly.

Part of the difficulty of studying traffic safety classes is they’re often paired with so-called “graduated” licenses — restricting how many passengers are allowed in a young person’s vehicle or the time of day they can drive. In Washington, only people under 18 must go through this intermediate period.

Regardless of whether it’s the mandatory safety classes or the graduated licenses, the state’s data showing people under 18 are safer drivers throws water on the assumption that safety naturally comes with age.


“The conventional wisdom … is that it would be better for people to wait until they’re older to start driving,” said McKechnie. “What this shows is that’s not necessarily the case if you provide the right training.”


One of the two bills under consideration in the Legislature would require anyone under 25 to complete an approved safety course before getting a license. It would not require a graduated license.

The second bill would create vouchers for people with low incomes to attend a course, although the bill is not currently funded.

“I think they work in tandem,” said Liias.

Ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, agrees the data suggests the safety courses make a difference and he supported each bill in theory. He has questions about cost and implementation, but said the conversation is worth having.

“We’ve gotta do something,” he said of the traffic deaths.

For her part, Deville sees the bills as “extremely helpful.”

“I know a lot of young people living in poverty-stricken situations and areas and this is something that a lot of people just do not have access to, and just don’t have the means to be able to afford,” she said.