The young and the reckless

Student drivers use cars like this one to complete the hands-on

Teens are often involved in accidents because they are
inexperienced, distracted by friends or driving at night, so state
legislators have attempted to mitigate these issues with early
training, while parents are still in the car.
Teens are often involved in accidents because they are inexperienced, distracted by friends or driving at night, so state legislators have attempted to mitigate these issues with early training, while parents are still in the car.

In 1998, the state’s new graduated licensing laws, which limited the hours and circumstances under which teens were allowed to be on the road, raised the minimum license age and provided for more behind-the-wheel training during the permit period, took effect.

But in the South Valley, the rush is still on for teens to get their licenses.

At driving schools like Roadrunner Driving School in Morgan Hill, spring break sessions are already full and summer looks to be packed with 15- and 16-year-old drivers in waiting, just bursting for their first taste of life at the wheel.

Before they’re allowed to test for their licenses, today’s teens must complete 50 hours of practice driving, including 10 nighttime hours, with someone older than 25 while they hold their learner’s permits, said Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Steve Haskins. Prior to that the 1998 laws, 30 hours of practice driving were required.

Teens now also must complete six hours of practice driving with a licensed instructor like Roadrunner’s Bruce Kitain.

Kitain takes students for three two-hour-long lessons. On the first, they travel to a residential area for practice in accelerating and braking, turning and crossing small intersections.

Then it’s on to back roads that take them to Gilroy or San Jose, and finally, they brave the freeways.

“We just work on building up their comfort with speed,” said Kitain.

To complete this process, both parents or guardians must sign a statement certifying their child’s time behind the wheel. In the case of single parents or those with sole custody, legal proof of the arrangement must be submitted to the DMV.

After teens pass the license test, they’re subject to provisional license requirements for one year. In the first six months of their provisional period, they can drive unsupervised from 5am to midnight or may transport people under the age of 20 if a licensed adult 25 years old or older is in the car.

In the next six months, they may drive with friends under 20 years old in the car from 5am to midnight, but may only transport others between midnight and 5am with a licensed adult older than 25 in the car.

Jerry Alcones, 15 1/2, doesn’t mind the rules. He says he would rather get the experience with a parent in the car because he doesn’t want to become a statistic.

“I don’t want to be one of the 80 percent who get in an accident their first year,” said Alcones, a sophomore at Sobrato High School who, at the time of his interview, had completed four of the state’s six required hours with a licensed driving instructor.

With an eye on the additional freedoms it will bring him, Alcones hopes to test for his driver’s license within two weeks of his 16th birthday, so he’ll be able to drive to the mall himself or visit cousins in San Jose without bugging his parents for a ride.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of schools in the South Valley no longer offer driver’s education, and the cost of outside classes can range as high as $375 for classroom instruction and the state’s six hours of required driving instruction.

Insurance, proof of which is required to take license tests, can be as high as $1,600 every six months for some boys, said Kendel Place, owner of Roadrunner Driving School in Morgan Hill, which leads some kids to drive without completing the state-mandated instruction.

“In one out of three classes, I get a kid who drives himself to class, and they always think they’re good drivers,” said Place. “Usually they take their first test, and they miss 20 or more points, but I don’t know why their parents let them drive. If they get in an accident, they can’t get a license for at least a year, and the parents are liable, but a lot of times they do it because the parents don’t have time to take them to work or to school.”

And while modern automotive technology may have led to the creation of safer cars, teenage ideas of invincibility persist.

“Seat belts and airbags have done a lot to make cars safer,” said Matt Ramirez, public affairs officer for the Hollister/Gilroy CHP, “but steel and flesh don’t mix. It’s one of those things that comes down to the driver and just keeping your eyes on the road, following at appropriate speed and good distance, and wearing a seatbelt.”

The number of teens who die is extraordinarily high, when observers stop to consider teens are at fault in two thirds of automobile fatalities, but make up only four percent of the total drivers on the road, according to Ramirez.

Boys are four times as likely as girls to be involved in a fatal collision, but all members of the 15 to 24 age group are most likely to crash because they’re driving too fast, failing to yield the right of way, following too close or not paying attention to the road, said Ramirez.

A new CHP program called “Start Smart” is aiming to educate them on the dangerous consequences of these actions.

“We actually go out and try to be proactive about it, try to educate them a little bit and get them to drive smarter by saying, “Hey! You guys are dying out there,'” said Ramirez.

But for some local teens, the message has already been delivered through personal experience.

Regina Coney has just completed driver’s education, the state-mandated classroom instruction for new drivers-to-be, and was to take the written test for her driver’s permit later in the afternoon, but she didn’t do it the moment she could have.

Coney turns 17 on Monday, and while she first says the delay in seeking her license was caused by sheer laziness, another picture quickly emerges.

She’s keenly aware of the responsibility the driver’s seat carries, and wasn’t sure it was something she could handle. Her friend Erin Kinkel was killed in a car accident on winding Redwood Retreat Road in Gilroy last August.

“I want to get a job, and I’m tired of my parents driving me around, so I guess it’s time for me to start becoming an adult and just be more independent,” said Coney, who still worries about other drivers on the road. “There’s some people who are cautious and who know what’s right and wrong. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of kids who drive like teenagers are expected to, racing and stuff.”

Teens may be more dangerous drivers, but it’s not a reason to clear the road. Start a dialogue early with teens to talk about driving patterns and habits, said Ramirez.

Ask about how their friends drive and what the lawor common sense might have to say about these actions. With proper instruction and a few reminders, teens can be safe out on the road.

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