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Educating teens about driving can be a moving target, officials say

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at 8:07 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at 10:36 a.m.

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Connie Sessoms says when it comes to high-stakes testing in schools, the stakes don’t come any higher than in driver education.

“If a child is working out a math problem and they get it wrong … they have an opportunity to erase it and do it over – life is good, they learn, which is our goal,” said Sessoms, a longtime driver education teacher.

“This driver education thing, if they don’t get it and they hit a tree at 50 mph, they don’t get to do that over,” he said. “Their life is forever altered, if that child survives. If they don’t survive, their family is forever changed. That’s the kind of stuff we’re working with.”

Sessoms, of Charlotte, N.C., is president of the the American Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association. He’s one of about 200 members of the organization, hailing from states from Hawaii to Vermont, who gathered in Wichita this week for a conference on the latest trends in driver training.

These are tough times for the profession.

Though statistics indicate teen traffic fatalities are down in Kansas, instructors say they are worried about waning driver education programs and an exponential increase in driver distractions on the road today.

Budgetary clamps have forced many school districts to drop driver education entirely. Wichita’s USD 259 cut the program in the 2010-11 school year, spokeswoman Susan Arensman said.

In districts that still offer it, which includes most Wichita suburban districts, it’s usually seen more as an after-school or summer add-on, rather than a core part of the curriculum.

Because school districts aren’t hiring as much, universities are dropping their programs to train driver education teachers, contributing to a growing teacher shortage as baby-boomer educators age out.

And technology has dramatically changed the way driver education has to be taught.

Beyond the basic skills of steering, braking and how to use a turn signal, it’s increasingly about how to deal with a more complicated driving environment as digital technology has migrated into the cockpits of vehicles.

Safety-wise, it’s a mixed bag.

“Electronic stability, that’s one of the greatest things in the car,” said Allen Robinson, chief executive officer of the association. “All-wheel drive, absolutely the greatest thing in the car.”

Backup cameras and GPS navigation also have made cars safer, he said.

“People are buying the particular car for those things and then it’s our role to teach these kids how to use them effectively,” he said.

The safety improvements keep coming. By 2018, all new cars will “talk” to each other electronically and use automatic braking and lane departure warning systems to prevent collisions, Sessoms said.

But there’s also a downside to technology.

Video display screens that have replaced older-style dial indicators can be distracting and confusing. And new entertainment options – especially smartphones and the ability to hook digital music players into the car stereo – add to driver distraction, the experts said.

Larry Bernstorf, a veteran teacher in Derby, said he’s noticed students seem to come to driver training with less capability because they spend more time playing with computers and less riding bikes or scooters, which teaches skills such as steering and integrating into traffic patterns.

“The kids are smarter, but they’re not as mature” as potential drivers, he said. “They have the knowledge, but they don’t have the practical, the hand and eye coordination.”

Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this summer, two Harper County teenagers were killed on a rural road when an SUV they were driving was struck by a pickup truck going at about 55 mph. The crash injured three more teens as well. In August, a 16-year-old Pratt driver died after crashing into a semi on K-61 near the south city limits of Preston.

No two crashes are the same, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Warner said, but distracted driving in teenagers is a problem.

“We still need an attentive driver who’s not distracted by other things to operate the vehicle safely,” Warner said.

Texting is Enemy No. 1 of every traffic officer and driver education teacher.

Sessoms said there are three types of driving distraction: cognitive distraction, which takes your mind off your driving; visual distraction that takes your eyes off the road and mechanical distraction, which takes your hands off the wheel.

“Texting has all three of those distractions,” he said. That’s what makes it so bad.”

Kansas Department of Transportation statistics showed that in 2010, cellphone distractions caused 518 crashes in drivers of all ages. However, other distractions like applying makeup or eating food accounted for 1,336 crashes that same year.

Drivers 24 years old and younger account for about 40 percent of the crashes, Warner said. In 2010 drivers in that age group were involved in 24,276 of the 60,634 crashes reported in the state, according to Department of Transportation figures.

“They’re involved in a disproportionate number of crashes those 10 years because they’re gaining experience,” Warner said. “They’re still honing their skills as a driver.”

Despite a recent surge in technologies that promote hands-free usage, Jim Hanni, AAA Kansas spokesman, said those technologies distract drivers even more than regular cellphone usage. He cited a study done by the University of Utah’s David Strayer, which the AAA Foundation published June 2013.

“ ‘Hey, my hands are on the wheel and my eyes are on the road. I’m in much better control of my situation, right?’ But that isn’t the case, apparently,” Hanni said.

Hanni said despite assumptions that teen traffic fatalities are rising, they have begun to decline in recent years.

And he said it is not because of driver education, and not because of increased technology.

He said it is because of the graduated driver’s licensing program Kansas implemented in 2010. Under the new state law, drivers do not receive an unrestricted license until they turn 17. In the past, the minimum age was 16.

The Kansas Department of Transportation on Monday released statistics indicating that since the program’s implementation, teen traffic fatalities have dropped sharply.

From 2010 to 2011, teen traffic fatalities fell by roughly 32 percent; from 2011 to 2012, 11 percent.

“There just isn’t any research that shows that driver education reduces crash rates,” Hanni said.

Hanni said he thinks driver education is still a viable method of instructing drivers, but that it needs to be more rigorous. Kansas, he said, standardizes “the bare minimum” when it comes to driver education.

The state only requires driver education for one type of license, license to drive unsupervised with time and task restrictions at age 15.

That can be met with instruction through a school district or commercial driving school, although the training program has to be approved by the Department of Education. The department’s guidelines call for 30 hours of classroom instruction and 10 hours behind the wheel.

Hanni said driver education is not the end-all solution, but that it lays the groundwork for supervised driving, which makes it “extremely important in that regard.”

“Just because driver ed doesn’t impact crash rates the way we’d like, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it,” Hanni said. “The issue is inexperience.”

Sessoms acknowledges the success of graduated license laws, saying they lower the teen crash rate by about 30 percent. But he said driver education, which is often synchronized with graduated license programs, deserves a share of the credit.

“They’re joined at the hip,” Sessoms said. “When one sees a reduction in crashes and in teen deaths, it’s attributable to both.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com or Matt Riedl at 316-269-6791 or mriedl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow Matt Riedl on Twitter: @riedlmatt.

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