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16 and behind the wheel
Local teens prepare for deadly driving season

Summer for teens means free time, summer jobs and for many, the excitement and freedom that comes with getting a driver’s license. But this age old rite of passage can be an anxiety inducing one for parents — with good reason. The summer season between Memorial Day and Labor Day represents one of the deadliest periods for teen drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

About one-third of teen deaths are from vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And a good number of those crashes will occur during these months.

Distracted Driving

While the good news is that the reported number of teens driving drunk or getting into cars with drunk drivers has decreased dramatically and the number of riders wearing seatbelts has increased in the last 10 years, one of the growing hurdles for teen drivers is distracted driving. 

A recent CDC survey found that more than half of the 15,000 high school seniors surveyed admitted to texting while driving within the last month.

“They think they’re indestructible at this age,” said Alan Deighton, who founded New London School of Driving in Loganville 11 years ago. “They’re texting more and talking on their cell phones… We’re really trying to reach out and make them understand what the dangers are out there.”

New London school instructors say when they poll the hundreds of students that come through the school monthly on whether they’ve been in a car with someone texting or talking on the cell phone, about 85 to 95 percent of the students raise their hands. 

Instructors say it’s often the parents who are texting while driving in the car with their teens.

Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Kuehl said when he chides his mom, “She says, ‘I have to. It’s important.’”

Brittany Wesneer, 16, said her parents would be extremely angry if they caught her texting and driving. “All my friends do it. I usually have to say something to them. My friends are already not the best drivers.” 

The students at the school said they’ve learned to ask other people in the car to text for them.

Wesneer said that even without texting, simply talking to other friends in the car is a big distraction sometimes.

Rising Salem junior Alexus Mathis pointed out not all teens are distracted drivers. “My best friend is really good about not being on the phone at all. I’ll call and he’ll say, ‘I’m driving, I have to call you back.’”

Deighton thinks legislative changes will do more to change behavior than education. “I believe that texting should be on the same level as a DUI. If a teen is texting, they can be charged with a DUI and go to jail.”

In Georgia, texting while driving has been banned for everyone since 2010 and drivers under 18 are prohibited from using the cell phone at all while driving, except for emergency calls.


Learning to Drive

In Rockdale County, as in many other counties, public schools stopped offering driver’s education starting in 2011 due to budget cuts. Local teens are finding other ways of getting the instruction and experience behind the wheel.

While some are turning to commercial schools, such as the New London school, which offers six days of instruction including talks from paramedics, cyclists, truckers and other professionals, some are turning to online driver’s ed. 

And of course, there’s family and family friends.

All teens need to have 40 or more supervised hours behind the wheel. Several teens at the New London School chimed in that it was harder to learn from mom than other family members because of the anxiety level.

Alexus Mathis agreed. “My mother is really nervous when she gets in the car with me,” she said. “She scares me and it’s hard to drive with my mom. With my stepdad, it’s so much more relaxed. He’ll correct me but he’ll give me good feedback on good things I’ve done.”

For many teens, convenience is the key factor, whether it’s getting to activities or being able to get a job more easily.

Jade Gonzalez, 15, said she can’t wait to get her license. “I’m always late to things because I’m the oldest of three kids.”

Keeli Coble, 15, a student at Young American Christian School, said she was looking forward to being able to drive on her own but a little apprehensive. “The first day is probably going to be a little difficult. You don’t have people to tell you what to do.”

Not all teens are jumping to get behind the wheel. Scott Prophett, who was on hand to see his youngest daughter Hanna take her driving test, said his oldest son was in no rush to get his license. “He’s very intelligent… He said there’s only a bunch of crazy drivers out there,” said Prophett. “At 17 we finally made him go get his license.”

Sarah Jo Greer, 15, said she’s been putting it off simply out of not wanting to sit through Saturday morning driver’s ed classes. “But I am regretting it because one by one all of my friends can already drive all over the place, which is certainly starting to get my attention.”