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Supporting Youth with Cognitive Limitations to Get Their Learner's License: Project Drive

By Robin Gaines Lanzi

For most adolescents, obtaining a driver’s license is a major step toward gaining independence. However, for adolescents with mental retardation or other cognitive limitations this may be especially difficult because before anyone can take the driver’s license test, they must first pass a written learner’s license test. Unfortunately, programs and services available to support individuals with cognitive limitations in reviewing the driver’s license material and preparing for the learner’s license test are woefully inadequate in terms of availability and types of services. Funded by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, and Civitan International Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Project Drive was originally created to develop and implement a comprehensive, intensive, and effective learner’s license program for adolescents with mild mental retardation or other cognitive limitations in Alabama over the course of two years, from 1998-2000. Findings indicate that the program was successful in helping not only adolescents with mild mental retardation and cognitive limitations obtain their learner’s license, but others as well. A brief overview of Project Drive is provided below, along with a description of the key products, program findings, and accomplishments.

Project Drive Overview

The goal of Project Drive was to help adolescents with mild mental retardation or other cognitive disabilities obtain their driver’s license by helping them pass the learner’s license exam. To accomplish this goal, the Alabama Driver’s Manual was modified to approximately the second grade reading level and an accompanying teacher’s curriculum guide was developed. Two videos were also developed to explain the goals and benefits of Project Drive to parents and students. Materials were piloted in schools representative of the geographic, economic, and rural/urban diversity of Alabama. In the first year of the project, individual trainers were hired to work with the four initial pilot sites. The trainers were selected for their professional degrees in special education and work-instruction, and for their experience in working with individuals with mental retardation. They were carefully trained over a one-month period on the specifics of using the Project Drive curriculum, and thereafter the progress of the trainers was monitored on a weekly basis. The long-term usefulness of any curriculum is limited by the degree to which the materials can be integrated into an existing system. Therefore, the objective of the second year centered more heavily on product refinement and institutionalization. Teacher training was limited to one session of two hours on the materials and their use.

The program was categorized into three parts: learning the basic background information for driving, understanding the driving test requirements, and assisting students who need additional help. Instruction was provided by special education teachers. Additionally, research assistants conducted interviews with participants and parents about their expectations and experiences.

Initially, an advisory panel was formed that included a parent of a child with mild mental retardation, an adolescent with mild mental retardation who has a driver’s license, a high school driving instructor, a special education teacher, the Alabama Department of Public Safety (chief examine officer), and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. This advisory panel was extremely active throughout the project’s development and implementation. Additionally, Project Drive partnered with special education teachers, driver’s education teachers, and the Alabama Department of Public Safety to develop the materials.

Three products were developed by the project:

Pilot Study Outcomes

The pilot program involved 8 counties in Alabama, 10 school systems, 16 schools, and 157 students. Of those students, 103 (65.6%) had an opportunity to take the Alabama Learner’s License Test (54 were unable to take it for various reasons, including inability to get to the DMV or to pay to take the test). An overwhelming majority of them (78%) passed the test. The students who passed the Learner’s License Test had a mean IQ of 71 (SD=10.77), mean reading comprehension of 4.2 (SD=1.86), and spent an average of 38.3 hours studying the material. It is especially noteworthy that students with IQs as low as 40 and students with reading comprehension levels as low as first grade successfully passed the Learner’s License Test after completing the program. In addition, participants reported many benefits of acquiring a driver’s license, including positioning themselves better to obtain their first job, broadening their social network, increasing their activities of daily living, and promoting self-esteem and self-worth.

Project Drive has represented a landmark effort both in the state of Alabama and the nation as one of the first programs to help adolescents with mild mental retardation or other cognitive limitations obtain their learner’s license and driver’s license. The project accomplished a tremendous amount, both quickly and economically. Key stakeholders, parents, students, and especially educators received Project Drive with overwhelming enthusiasm and support. The program exceeded its original goals, which included the following:

A number of accomplishments extend beyond those proposed goals and are especially noteworthy. First, the Alabama Department of Education, Special Education Services, considered the materials sufficiently important to the education of special education students that they published the manual, and have distributed it to the special education teachers in all public secondary schools throughout the state. Furthermore, the Alabama Department of Education, Pupil Transportation and Driver Education, collaborated with the Alabama Department of Education, Special Education Services, in the publication of the modified manual and distributed it to all driver’s education teachers statewide. Second, a number of individuals and professionals involved in adult education throughout the state have purchased the books for use in their classes. Adult literacy efforts ranging from industrial employee education to welfare-to-work programs are now using the Project Drive books to foster independence and productivity in their clients. Third, due to the success of the project, we have been contacted by professionals requesting that we aid them in the process of teaching on-road vehicle driving (as opposed to strictly classroom instruction) to individuals with cognitive limitations.

Robin Gaines Lanzi was principal investigator with Project Drive at the Civitan International Research Center, University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is now Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Science, and Program Director at the Center on Health and Education, School of Nursing and Health Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. She may be reached at 202/687-4282 or


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Gaylord, V., Abeson, A., Bosk, E., Timmons, J., & Lazarus, S. (Eds.). (2005). Impact: Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities 18(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available at

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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