Teens fight inexperience when license puts them behind wheel

August 18, 2003|GARY MOYERS

The opening of school each August brings life to campuses grown quiet during the summer months.

Buses pull in and out of busy parking lots, carrying students to and from schools, navigating among parents who give their children rides and teachers who supply their own transportation.

Each opening day also brings a new potential hazard to school - teen-agers who just received their driver's license, reveling in the new-found independence that driving a car brings.

That independence, however, also puts a new driver with a decided lack of experience in control of what is potentially a lethal vessel.


According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teens account for 7 percent of the total number of licensed drivers, but are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash as adults. One in three teen-age drivers will have an accident during their first year behind the wheel.

Vehicular crashes leading cause of death among teen-agers

Police reports indicate that 82 percent of accidents involving teens are due to driver error, and the rate of driver error as the cause of an accident is highest among 16-year-olds. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says vehicular crashes are the leading cause of death among teen-agers.

"Years ago, and I'm not sure when this was, Kentucky was ranked very high nationally in the death rate among teen-agers," said Roscoe Perkins, a 31-year teaching veteran who has been the driver's education instructor at Harrodsburg and Mercer County high schools for 15 years.

"What we do as parents, when they turn 16, we buy them a car, then we hope for the best while we worry about them. I did it for my daughter, just like everyone else. But the key is, we have to make sure they're ready to drive a car, then we have to keep checking on them to make sure they remain ready."

Jay Newell, assistant chief with the Danville Police Department, said teen accidents are usually a result of inexperience or inattention.

"Things can happen on the road that you have never planned for or never seen, even for older drivers," said Newell. "There is no substitute for that experience, and the only way you can make up for that lack of experience is with total concentration on driving. Cell phones, conversations, all those things have to be secondary to the driving."

Accidents involving teens tend to follow pattern

In Danville, Newell said accidents in which a teen driver is involved tend to follow a seasonal pattern.

"Here, the collisions tend to be different," he said. "In the summer, we see more high speed collisions, but during the school year, there are more fender benders, parking lot wrecks, that sort of thing. A lot of those happen in school parking lots, and I suspect there are many more that aren't reported."

Stanford Police Chief Keith Middleton, himself a father of two teenagers, said teen drivers have not been a big problem in Stanford.

"It's a little against the statistics, but I don't really find that the teens are the most reckless around here," said Middleton. "Actually, here, it's the elderly. We work very few accidents with teens. The majority of our accidents involve people 30-80. Below 30, the accidents tend to be more critical."

Middleton said he thinks teens have become more aware of the dangers of driving, and that more experience brought on by Kentucky's graduated license system is having an affect.

"Teens do have fast reflexes, and I think they're being more careful because once they get that freedom that comes with a license, they don't want to lose it," he said. "Pride in getting the license has made them more cautious, I think."

Newell agrees that the graduated license has made a difference among teen drivers.

"There are a lot of benefits to it, I think," he said. "It gives the teen-age driver more opportunity to gain experience, which is their most glaring weakness. In the old days, you'd get your permit, then a couple of months later you'd get your license, and that night you'd be driving around in the dark, facing headlights for the first time, in full control. Now you get your permit, drive for six months with an adult driver, then drive for awhile with a night curfew. It gives the new driver a chance to learn some of the things you only get with experience on the road."

Graduated license program allows permit at age 16

Kentucky's graduated license program allows a teen to obtain a permit at age 16 by passing a written exam. The permit allows the teen to drive only when accompanied by a 21-year-old or older licensed driver, and the teen may not drive between midnight and 6 a.m.

After six months, the permit holder may take the skills test, and a passing score gains a driver's license. If the license holder is under 21, the license has a distinctive marking.

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