Having grown up in the suburbs, I only learned to parallel park to pass the driver's test. So when I borrowed a friend's car recently, I realized I would have to parallel park for the first time since I was 16. But at the moment of truth I recalled my old driving lessons and found myself perfectly aligned with the curb. Success!
I cannot say that I would have been able to pull off this feat if I had learned to drive under THIS method:
These high schoolers are practicing parallel parking with the Aetna Drivotrainer, which had its debut at the Brooklyn High School for Automotive Trades, on Bedford Ave, in 1953. The Drivotrainer was a replacement for on-road instruction. Students sat in "dummy cars" and navigated courses that played out on the screen in front of them. Each car was equipped with a monitoring system that noticed every turn of the wheel and push of the pedal. A printer near the instructor's booth provided a print out of each student's performance.
In the early 1950s, instituting driver's education in high schools became a national solution for highway safety and traffic accident concerns. But providing this service in a large school system was costly. Before the Drivotrainer, most New York City students completed their driver's education in a classroom. According the Department of Education, only 1% received on-road instruction, which was expensive and logistically challenging. Instruction via Drivotrainer, where a teacher could provide "behind the wheel" instruction to 15 students at once, was one solution.
Richard O'Connor, the NYC comissioner for Driver's Education, was a strong supporter of the Drivotrainer. After contacting Aetna, he was able to receive one donated classroom to use for a series of pilot tests. He worked with a team of education officials and Aetna representatives to shoot hours of driving footage in Hartford, CT. What resulted was a set of 22 films, covering everything from driving basics to emergencies. The young man above is responding to the latter.
The Drivotrainer gained media attention at its introduction because it was a totally new approach to driver's education. The Eagle provides us with a series of wonderfully posed shots of students using the cars, and the New York Times has several articles on the options and results of various driving training systems. In a lengthy Times piece written by Mr. O'Connor himself, we learn that students were responding well to the Drivotrainer and that it seemed to be a successful option in the early years of its existence.
As with many cultural phenomena, it is harder to tell the end of the story. There is evidence that the Drivotrainer found success nationally and abroad. In 1954, a 15-seat classroom had been built in Sweden by Aetna. The latest mention I found was a 1967 Times article highlighting the use of new computer technology to improve the Drivotrainer's student assessments.
We now live in a world where driving simulators can be found in almost every arcade and home gaming system. It is hard to imagine that this was a credible option for teaching at one time. For the most part, I want to dismiss the system as archaic and kitschy. On the other hand, the costliness and danger of on-road training still exists. Perhaps Aetna and Mr. O'Connor, who believed that some training is better than no training, were onto something.