It’s the little things—not the front-page disclosures—that suggest to us that we’ve been had.

Take, for instance, a 1987-88 study by the Oregon Department of Transportation. ODOT studied 551 students between 16 and 19 years of age who had completed driver education programs, 581 students who said they would have taken the course had it been available, and 197 students who didn’t take the course and weren’t interested in doing so.

The project compared driver examination test scores and driving records of the 1,329 drivers, all of whom obtained their first driver’s license between September 1987 and January 1988.

An article in the ODOT magazine explains that students who had taken driver education and passed the driver exam scored “significantly higher” on the law and knowledge part of the test, and “somewhat higher” on the behind-the-wheel portion, than those who passed the licensing test but had no interest in taking the course. On the other hand, the flunking rate for all groups was the same, whether or not they’d had training.

More amazing than this, though, was what ODOT Motor Vehicles Division researcher Barnie Jones was quoted as saying, “We found that the driving records of those who had taken student driver education and those who hadn’t were very similar. The groups had virtually identical traffic accident and violation rates after six months and months of driving.” In other words, driver ed doesn’t change any lifestyles.

Now, in most states driver education is mandatory for high school students who expect to drive, and car and liability insurance is lower for kids who have taken the course. That was true even 20 years ago, when we were forced to sit in the simulator (we called it the “stimulator”) and watch bloody movies about kids who drank and drove, movies so embarrassing that we giggled through them. Now ODOT has the nerve to say that driver ed really doesn’t make much difference.

This also encourages thinking about other “mandatory learning experiences” that our kids don’t need. What about physical education class? Does getting frustrated or sweaty for 40 minutes twice a week (and then either being denied a shower or forced to take one, gang-style, and re-dress in a sweaty locker room) teach our kids that sports are fun, that our bodies are temples? No PE teacher I’ve ever had has looked as if she enjoyed the job. Every 1989 American couch potato—and we come by the truckload—was forced to attend years and years of gym class. They just didn’t “take.” I learned in adulthood to enjoy several sports, moderately, but at the time I would rather have been reading. So sue me.

Then there’s “hygiene” or “health” class. It’s no secret that even though most teenagers are forced to take this class, they’re still having babies during homeroom and making more of them after school. “Health” class used to mean learning how important it is to brush one’s teeth and wash with soap; now third-graders learn exactly how to do things that I still had to guess about when I was in college. These children are also, presumably, being told about Death, and how it looms ever more near these days—after all, sex ed didn’t move into elementary classrooms in a big way until what has come to be very wishfully called the “AIDS epidemic.” I don’t particularly want my third-grade son to know about condoms—and if he’s not interested, let’s give the kid a break. I tried to chat with him about babies one night as we did the dishes, and he finally turned to me and said, “Mom, I’m having a lot of trouble listening to this.” Still, those babies keep dropping, so we ship the kids off to another state-mandated “health” class. Their time would be better spent in drivers ed.

Does anyone remember “social studies”? It’s still around. I didn’t have a bona fide history class until I was in high school, and I didn’t have geography until I was in college. In grade school and middle school we had “social studies,” where in a dozen pages kids learn a smattering of the history, customs, and agriculture of a smattering of countries. A fourteen-year-old sixth-grade social studies book our household plodded grimly through last year “did” Italy in ten pages, covering the early Romans, grapes and olives, Mussolini, and everything in between (except the Pope, of course). That same book pronounced Kuwait the “world’s most progressive nation,” and asked, at the end of one chapter, whether North Vietnam or South Vietnam were the communist nation. (I didn’t look, but I bet the Vietnam chapter talked about rice and the manufacture of straw hats.) Kids today still have “social studies,” and then embarrass a puzzled nation when they flunk history and geography tests.

Then there’s “defensive driving” for adults. Most states make a defensive driving class obligatory for those who have been in a traffic accident, regardless whether they were sober at the time. Now, an adult with a good record who has been in a fender-bender and who is really interested in learning a few little tips for driving more safely will take a lot home from such a class. The majority of drivers won’t. And yet “defensive driving” courses are a big industry, and make a state or city feel as if it’s doing something. It is, I guess: creating a cash flow.

But to get back to the driver ed students: I have a solution. If a kid does poorly on his exam or has a lot of accidents, just increase his mandatory PE classes. Make him run more laps and then endure the purgatory of gang showers—or return to class unshowered. It’ll keep him off the streets, and will be a right use of every aspect of gym class, which was, after all, created to punish.