Driver's ed: Retired or required?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Jerry Suedekum probably owes the last 39 years of his life to a passenger-side brake.

"I've had some close calls, and it's not always been my driver's fault," said Suedekum. "There are a lot of bad drivers out there."

Suedekum is part of the last line of defense in a dying field of study -- driver's education.

The high cost of the program and increasing pressure to improve student achievement in math and reading have led many schools, including most in Southeast Missouri, to cut the class from the curriculum.

Suedekum is one of two teachers who work part time at the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center, teaching about 140 students per year between them both.

The demand is there, but schools haven't been able to maintain the program, Suedekum said.

But a proposed Missouri House bill may force the course to resurface.

State Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, has proposed legislation that would require teens under age 18 to take a formal driver's education course before they could obtain a license.

According to Davis' bill, "formal driver's education course means "a driver's education instruction offered through any public or private secondary school in this state, any driving school or other entity certified to provide driver's education instruction in this state, or any other similar course of instruction approved by the Department of Revenue."

"The bill is designed to promote safety on the roads for not only students but everybody who shares the road with our youths," said Davis.

Davis said at this point the bill does not require school districts to offer a driver's education course.

The idea surfaced after a rash of car accidents in her district, 74 percent of which were caused by drivers under age 20.

"From that, we realized driver error is the greatest cause of car accidents, and driver error is augmented in people under 18," said Davis.

Statewide, 628 teenagers between the ages 15 and 18 were killed between 1995 and 1999 in auto accidents. Another 60,350 were injured during that same time period, according to the AAA.

Nationwide, the 16- to 20-year-old age group accounts for about 7 percent of the driving population but is involved in 14 percent of all fatal crashes. Teens fare worse in Missouri, where 15- to 20-year-old drivers make up about 10 percent of all drivers but are involved in nearly 32 percent of the total traffic crashes, according to AAA.

Davis said there is not an anticipated cost to the state of Missouri connected with her bill, despite the fact that drivers education courses are not available in many places.

In fact, Davis said the bill is not so much intended to force teens to take a driver's education course as it is to encourage them to wait until age 18 to get their license.

"It never killed an 18-year-old to not be able to drive," said Davis. "The point is not to say you have to take driver's ed, but by turning 18 there is a presumption that you have a greater degree of maturity which will compensate for inexperience."

The bill is currently awaiting assignment to a committee, which will hold a hearing on the issue. Right now, Davis said there are several connected issues up for debate, including broadening the certification requirements needed to teacher drivers education.

The lack of qualified teachers is, in part, why many schools, including Jackson, to stop offering the course. Jackson High School principal Rick McClard said one reason his school cut the course last year is because the driver's ed teacher retired and finding a replacement would have been difficult.

That's partly because only one Missouri college offers certification in driver's education that McClard knows of -- Central Missouri State University -- and McClard isn't even sure that certification will be sufficient given recent increases in teaching requirements.

"There are hardly any instructors left or even colleges that offer the courses needed to qualify to teach it," said McClard.

On top of that, there's a financial setback.

"The legislation is a good idea regarding safety, but it's not a cost-effective course. There's a very small number of students per instructor and it's expensive to operate with the cars and insurance," said McClard.

Local students are also less than enthusiastic about the proposed requirement.

At Central High School, 14-year-old Callie Meek said there's no way she would wait until she was 18 to get a license.

"I'd rather it just stay the way it is, but if I have to I'll take the test to get my license," said Meek.

Fifteen-year-old Annie Wolpers said her parents were already planning to sign her up for a driver's ed course.

"It's to help with insurance costs and my mom doesn't trust me with a steering wheel," said the Central freshman.

Jerry Suedekum's students at the career and technology center have similar stories. Many parents feel more comfortable if their child has taken the course, he said.

Suedekum supports the proposed legislation, but said even the six hours of driving students get in his course isn't enough.

"It takes more time than that to become a good driver," he said.

335-6611, extension 128


* Nationally, 14 percent of all deaths due to motor vehicle accidents are a teenage driver.

* Most teen driver deaths due to motor vehicle accidents -- 53 percent -- occur on weekends.

* Teen drivers killed in motor vehicle accidents had a youth passenger in automobile 45% percent of the time.

* Of teen drivers fatally injured in automobiles, more than one-third were speed-related accidents.

* The teenage lifestyle of staying up late make teen drivers a high risk to have an automobile accident due to drowsiness.

* More than any age group, teens are likely to be involved in a single vehicle crash.

* This age group makes up 7% of licensed drivers, but suffers 14% of fatalities and 20% of all reported accidents.


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