Driver education helps teenagers stay safe behind the wheel
by Rosalyn Demaree
Fifteen-year-old Emily Kearns says her parents made a wise investment when they spent $350 to send her to driver's education courses at highly rated Helms Driving School in Charlotte, N.C. Before taking the classes, the Monroe, N.C., teen's time behind the wheel consisted mostly of driving around her family's farm and in parking lots, according to her mother, Angie's List member Lisa Kearns.
"Any parent can teach you how to drive, but I think we're more responsive to other people," Emily says. "I think it's important to take driver's ed, but it's also good for your parents to ride with you when you're starting to drive."
With motor vehicle crashes reported as the No. 1 killer of 16- to 20-year-olds in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts say a combination of parental and professional instruction may be the best approach to teaching teens to drive.
"It's a partnership," says Robin Rabanus, owner of highly rated A+ Driving Academy, a driving school based in Zionsville, Ind. "This is not something where you bring your child to us and I wave a magic wand and suddenly they can drive well. We have to work together to make sure they're safe."
In a recent online poll, 51 percent of Angie's List members say they taught their children to drive, while 28 percent sent their teens to school-based driver's education, 19 percent sent theirs to a private driving school and 2 percent asked a relative or friend.
"You worry anytime your child does something new," Lisa Kearns says. She and her husband, Mark, taught Emily and her older sister, Laura, to drive, in addition to sending them to Helms. "It was easier on our nerves and our relationship with our daughters to let someone neutral teach them to drive," she says.
During 30 hours of classroom lessons, Emily says she learned about traffic signs and the dangers of distracted driving. Specifically, she learned that texting and driving is equivalent to drunken driving because you're not looking at the road.
"When you're drunk driving, you're not fully aware of what's going on around you," she says. "[Texting while driving] is the same concept as drunk driving."
State driving manuals say it takes the average driver three-quarters of a second to react to a hazardous situation. For example, if you're driving 50 mph, your vehicle will travel 55 feet before you're able to hit the brakes.
"We have discussions each day in our classes about distractions while driving," says Margaret Helms, owner and one of three instructors at Helms. "We try to discourage any type of in-car distractions, such as cellphones, loud music, and too many teens in one car together."
Sharon Fife, a longtime driving instructor whose family has owned D & D Driving School in Kettering, Ohio, since 1952, says she hired another professional driving instructor to teach her own daughter to drive because she thought her daughter would learn differently from a stranger.
She says most driving tests last about 15 minutes and cover only basic maneuvers, although the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is piloting a more comprehensive national driving test that states would have the option to adopt. Typically, tests don't cover complex skills, such as lane changes or driving in heavy traffic, she says.
"Many driving tests don't focus on why drivers get in crashes, which would be lack of visual skills," says Fife, who also serves as president of the Driving School Association of the Americas. "The most common statement after a crash is 'I didn't see them.'"
At least half of the Angie's List poll respondents say they would talk to their children about safe driving and take them on practice drives before their child gets a license. Fife advises parents to allow their teens to make their own driving decisions, and explain why they made specific decisions.
Highly rated driving instructors offer these tips to parents of teen drivers:
• Explain that driving is a privilege and outline the accompanying responsibilities. • Demonstrate safe driving.
• Give new drivers time to familiarize themselves with the controls in a new vehicle.
• Find teachable moments. Talk about traffic flow and signs at a stoplight.
• Don't allow passengers during driving lessons.
"Parents many times make the decisions for new drivers and this will not prepare them to drive alone," she says. "The decision-making process is probably the most difficult for new drivers."
She also recommends parents assign one person to practice with the teen; schedule practice drives; and gradually introduce the driver to traffic by starting in a parking lot, moving to a quiet neighborhood, then going out in light traffic.
But no matter who teaches a teen, Fife stresses it's important to do two things: Don't expect them to drive well - developing good habits takes years - and give clear instructions about what the driver should do.
Luann Reyna, a 35-year instructor and owner of highly rated ABC Driving School in Austin, Texas, says it's important for parents to set a good example, especially when their teen points out the adult's driving errors.
"I wish parents would take it as positive feedback, not negative," Reyna says. "When you have a parent teach, they will teach the way they drive."
ABC's program consists of 32 hours in the classroom, seven hours driving and seven hours observing other student drivers on the road. It costs $355.
When selecting a driving school, Reyna suggests parents ask how long the program takes, when driving will begin, the class size, how much time is spent in the classroom and behind the wheel, and how many people will be in the car at once. "When you have three passengers in the back seat, someone could block the rearview mirror," she says.
Peer influence, inexperience, risk-taking and distracted driving are among the things that make teen driving a concern for Dr. Tina Cheng, professor of pediatrics at highly rated Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore.
"It's a huge issue that we don't pay enough attention to," says Cheng, who sent her daughter to driving school. "Parents worry about it a lot, but there's not a lot of guidance. " Not all states require driver's education either, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Cheng says some parents seem surprised when she talks to her patients about dangerous driving, and urges families to use materials and a driving contract from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Even so, Cheng and driving instructors say, teens too often believe injuries only happen to others.
Cheng advises parents to establish consequences before risks are taken and set limits to reduce dangerous situations, such as driving when other teens are present, at night or in hazardous weather.
As families face time constraints with school, sports and other extracurricular activities, it's little surprise that Angie's List poll respondents repeatedly cite convenient hours of the driving schools as an important consideration when choosing a driving school. Time is such a universal consideration, in fact, that 17 states allow online classes for the classroom portion of driver's education, according to Fife.
The 5-year-old America Driving School in Los Angeles offers online driver's education classes to anyone seeking a California driver's license. "Most kids do the lessons late at night," owner and instructor Brenda Castillo says.
The 30-hour online class, which costs $195 and requires an additional six hours on the road, is divided into 10 chapters. Once students earn a certificate of completion, they must pass a Department of Motor Vehicles test to get a learner's permit and take driving lessons, she says.
Newer features on vehicles also help to reduce distractions and allow parents to better monitor their teens' driving, says Nick Staropoli, operations manager of highly rated Powell Motors in Portland, Ore.
Ford's My Key allows parents to establish top speeds, radio volume and other settings; newer Volkswagens prevent settings on touch-screen stereos to be changed while driving; and GPS trackers allow parents to see remotely how fast a vehicle is traveling and where it's located.
Parents can also load software onto phones that shuts off texting when the phone is moving fast. "If you have the money and the will, you can disable just about anything," Staropoli says.
States differ on what licenses may be required for driver's education companies. In general, consumers should check to make sure the company is properly licensed, and ask for proof of insurance and a performance bond.
Policymakers also play a role in increasing safety for new drivers. Every state provides some kind of graduated driver licensing (GDL), says Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. GDL laws phase in driving privileges, limit conditions that create risk and allow new drivers to build their confidence.
Depending on the state, GDL laws might prohibit passengers younger than 18 in the early months of driving, allow driving only until 9 or 10 p.m., ban the driver from using any type of electronic device, and require months of driving with a licensed adult in the vehicle. "The trend is to make the process tougher and tougher," Adkins says.
Find your state's graduated driver licensing laws at ghsa.org