The readability of state drivers' handbooks

The rules of the road

Lure of the open road
The lure of the open road is a powerful incentive for learning the rules of the road.

In many countries, taking a driver's test is a rite of passage. One's first driver's license brings the access to cars and the freedom of the open road. It also brings great risk, danger, and sometimes death. In no government document is readability more important than in the driver's manual.

All 50 states in the U.S. require driver license applicants to demonstrate their readiness for the road by passing both a conceptual and an applied driving test.

In large measure, these tests assess how well the applicant has learned and mastered key concepts outlined in the driver's manual. The studying of the driver's manual prior to the written test is usually the only intensive exposure most persons ever have to traffic safety and driving rules. For that reason, it is crucial that the concepts be presented as effectively as possible.

Each state's transportation department expends a great deal of effort in publishing this manual. They contain not only a compendium of the state's driver laws and regulations, but also indispensable instructions on driver safety.

The two TRB studies

in 2011, 32,367 people in the U.S. lost their lives in traffic accidents. The mission of the U.S Transportaton Research Board (TRB) of the National Acadamies is to reduce the number of those accidents.

In 1984, the TRB published a report, "The Readability of State Driver's Manuals" In which they listed the readability levels of the state driver's manuals then in use.

The report concluded:

"The findings help identify manuals whose level of reading difficulty exceed the literacy attainment of the general populace, indicating the need for further examination and possible revision."

In 1995, the TRB published a second review of the readability of the state manuals, "Are Drivers' Manuals Understandable?" This report states: "Because text complexity threatened the ability of license applicants and practicing drivers to understand the information in the manuals, a potential safety risk was indicated."

For the readability tests, the 1995 study applied the Fry, Flesch-Kincaid, and Raygor formulas to four 100-word samples from these four sections of each of the manuals:

  1. Driving under the influence of alcohol.
  2. Motorcycle safety.
  3. The use of seat belts.
  4. Obtaining a learner's permit.

They found that since the first report:

"...the average difficulty of the drivers' manuals was reduced by more than one grade and that the 1994 manuals were clearly superior to their earlier versions, but that, in the interest of highway safety, improvement should still be sought...

The readability analyses indicated that the manuals varied widely in reading level difficulty, with at least nine grade levels separating the easiest from the most difficult to read. In more than 60% of the states, students would need to read at or above the tenth grade level."

The readability of 2012 manuals

For an updated survey, we applied the Flesch formula to the current 2012 manuals. We used at least 100-word samples from each of the four sections used in the previous survey. We also noted the number of languages offered for the manual and written examination.

The following chart shows the results of the recent survey, along with the Flesch scores of the 1995 TRB survey.

State Driver's Manual
Alabama 10-12 11.5 1 15
Alaska 10-12 10.4 1 1
Arizona 8-9 10.8 2 2
Arkansas 10-12 14.2 2 2
California 8-9 9.3 10 10
Colorado 10-12 10.2 2 2
Connecticut 6 8.4 2 2
Delaware 10-12 10.8 5 5
District of Columbia N/A 9.5 1 4
Florida 8-9 9.8 2 2
Georgia 7 11.8 1 11
Hawaii 13-16 9.1 1 1
Idaho 10-12 10.7 2 2
Illinois 8-9 10.3 1 1
Indiana 10-12 11.8 1 1
Iowa 10-12 9.3 1 1
Kansas 8-9 10.1 1 1
Kentucky 10-12 9.9 1 1
Louisiana 7 9.3 1 1
Maine 8-9 7.3 1 1
Maryland 13-16 10.7 2 2
Massachusetts 13-16 7.2 1 1
Michigan 8-9 9.8 2 2
Minnesota 10-12 9.0 2 2
Mississippi 15.0 9.2 1 2
Missouri 13-16 8.8 3 3
Montana 10-12 7.6 1 1
Nebraska 17+ 10.5 1 1
Nevada 10-12 8.0 1 1
New Hampshire 10-12 7.9 1 1
New Jersey 10-12 10.5 1 1
New Mexico 10-12 7.0 2 2
New York 13-16 10.0 2 2
North Carolina 8-9 11.1 2 2
North Dakota 8-9 9.2 1 1
Ohio 13-16 10.8 2 2
Oklahoma 13-16 9.2 2 2
Oregon 8-9 9.4 2 2
Pennsylvania 8-9 8.9 2 2
Rhode Island 10-12 9.8 2 2
South Carolina 7 8.5 2 2
South Dakota 10-12 10.0 1 1
Tennessee 10-12 9.0 1 1
Texas 8-9 11.8 1 1
Utah 8-9 8.5 2 2
Vermont 13-16 9.3 2 2
Virginia 8-9 9.4 2 2
Washington 13-16 8.4 7 7
West Virginia 10-12 10.3 2 2
Wisconsin 10-12 7.7 3 3
Wyoming 10-12 8.7 1 1
Average 10-12 9.6

Towards Zero Deaths

Car crash
The main purpose of the driver's manual is to prevent accidents such as this one near Oklahoma City, which killed four last August.

The above listing shows that there has an improvement of about one grade of readability since 1995. In that same period, traffic deaths dropped from 41,817 to 32,367, a drop of 22 percent. There is still room for much improvement.

In 2009, the National Highway Administration created Toward's Zero Deaths: A National Strategy on Highway Safety. The strategy is described as a "data-driven effort focusing on identifying and creating opportunities for changing American culture as it relates to highway safety." It will include engineering, enforcement, education, emergency medical service (EMS), policy, public health, communications, and other efforts.

In promoting safety communications, we should remember that:

  1. The average adult reader in the U.S. has a 9th-grade level of reading ability.
  2. Over 20 percent of adults read below the 5th-grade level.
  3. Over 25 percent drop out of high school, mainly because of reading difficulties.
  4. Large numbers graduate from high school in the U.S. reading at the 8th-grade reading level.
  5. As people age, they naturally have more difficulty reading.
  6. Readers find that reading a text more than two grades above their literacy level difficult and frustrating, often causing them to stop reading.
  7. Readers are much more apt to complete the study of a manual if it matches their literacy level.
  8. The failure rate for taking the written driving exam for the first time is as high as 65 percent.
  9. First-time applicants are mostly teenagers who can be as young as 14, many with limited reading skill.
  10. Many states have limited or no requirements for professional instruction or driver-safety classes. They rely on the instruction given by relatives and friends.

A publication of the TRB, "A Guide for Reducing the Collisions involving Young Drivers," states:

In 2003, 6,424 teens between the ages of 15 and 20 years old were killed in motor vehicle crashes (CDC, 2006). Although 15- to 20-year-olds represented 8.4 percent of the United States population and 6.3 percent of licensed drivers, they accounted for 13.6 percent of drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes and 18 percent of drivers in police-reported crashes (NHTSA, 2005). The economic cost of crashes involving young drivers amounts to nearly 41 billion dollars a year (NHTSA, 2004).

One can also ask how many persons fail the test or do not take the test because of difficulties in reading the manual. According te TRB, unlicensed drivers caused 17 percent of the fatal crashes in the year 2000.

The TRB publication on reducing traffic accidents of older drivers states:

The number of older drivers in the United States will double over the next 30 years. By 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older. As people age, a decline in sensory, cognitive, or physical functioning can make them less safe drivers, as well as more vulnerable to injury once in a crash. Yet older Americans depend on automobiles for meeting their transportation needs.

Delaware is one state that has a separate driver's manual for seniors.

To meet those challenges, we recommend a standard readability level of the 7th grade. We also recommend that the manuals be tested on human samples of different tested levels of literacy.

Other readability issues

There are also other critical issues besides the readability score. The 1995 TRB report states:

"Beyond the scope of the readability formulas, there were other key differences from state to state that appeared to influence the difficulty of the manuals, including organization, tables of content and indexes, and use of headings and highlighting techniques."

These other readability issues include the following:

I. Foreign languages

Although knowing how to read English road signs In the U.S. is critical, Providing translated manuals and tests for foreign-language speakers will, over time, save many lives.

Automated translation makes foreign-language manuals, tests, and other instructional materials very affordable.

II. Document length

The manuals are much too long. A key factor in readability is the length of the document. People read more of a shorter document than of a longer one.

The publication of separate manuals for the different kinds of driver's licenses would be highly effective, as well as different documents for first-time and renewal licenses, etc.

Many states have already broken out their instructions into several manuals for different licenses such as learner, commercial, motorcycle, etc. Many have taken advantage of the Internet to present a wide range of supporting driving-safety and training materials.

Georgia's Website, for example, offers an online "30-hour Parent-Teen Driving Guide" to accompany the required driving course.

A single-purpose document is always more effective and less confusing than a multiple-purpose one.

III. Purpose and Organization

Montana's illustrated and Adapted Driver's Manual
Montana's illustrated and adapted version of the driver's manual attempts to reach a much larger audience.
Nearly all the manuals are lacking a clear purpose. They focus much more on the details of applying for a license than on driving safely.

The states recognize that learning to drive well is a highly complicated skill. You don't drive well just by memorizing all the rules. Like learning a language, you learn it by doing it.

The main purposes of the driver's manual is 1) to prevent automobile accidents and 2) prepare the applicant for the written examination—which focuses on road safety.

Readers often have to plow through 20 to 50 pages of application requirements before reaching sections on driving safety. Many manuals state that the written exam will be based on materials in the manual, but without stating which materials.

The rules for applying for a license should be located later in the book or better, relegated to other supportive and online documents.

The more the manual is focused on its main purpose, driving safely, the more it will facilitate passing the written test and the more accidents it will prevent.

The road-safety information of the manual should be prioritized according the severity of the consequences and penalties. The most important items should be covered first and emphasized accordingly. For example:
  1. Observing speed limits, warnings, and stop signs
  2. Alcohol and alertness
  3. Safety belts
  4. Stopping, turning, passing, and changing lanes
  5. Awareness of pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles
  6. Equipment and maintenance
  7. Hazardous driving conditions
The primary focus should be on the rules of the road, not the rules governing license applications.

IV. Motivation and design

The manuals have a golden opportunity to motivate readers by a highly integrated use of graphs, illustrations, photos, and sidebars. They should emphasize driving dangers and consequences of non-compliance.

Meaningful learning requires constructing connections between visual and verbal representations of a system.

Readability also requires that the design and layouts of the manuals be opened up and designed to match the reading habits of the readers. Younger and older drivers benefit from shorter words, sentences, paragraphs, and lines and a larger, clear typeface with high contrast.

Videos and interactive driving simulations also go a long way in motivating drivers to focus attention on critical issues. Most states already have video, graphics, and design specialists who can work on this critical task.

State-of-the-art design and training practices will go a long way in improving the effectiveness of state driver's manuals.

The road ahead

Driving lesson
States are starting to require approved driver instruction and safety courses such as the one shown here.

There is also the need to strengthen the requirements for formal driver instruction. As with any other complex skill, learning to drive takes method, training, and practice.

Many states are strengthening their graduated licensing programs. Georgia, in 2007 enacted "Joshua's Law" requiring an approved driver-education course.

All these efforts need to be supported with online and print publications that are easy-to-read and integrated with driving instruction. The states and local agencies are developing and adopting national standards for driving safety. They should include state-of-the-art communication standards, at least for the road safety sections of the driver's manual.

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