Teens behind the Wheel
Pleasanton going the extra mile to instill safe driving habits
"We don't call them accidents," J.P. Rosales, a representative with Farmer's Insurance Pleasanton, said at the recent town hall meeting aimed at teen driving. "Most often it's not an accident, so we call it a collision."
Rosales, members of the Pleasanton Police officers, many from the traffic division, and Commissioner Karen Rodrigue of the county's traffic division of the California Superior Court were present at the meeting to candidly speak with parents about impressing upon new drivers the importance of developing safe driving habits.
Safely maneuvering the highways and byways can sometimes be a challenge for all drivers, but Sgt. Michael Collins of the Pleasanton Police Department said teens are especially at risk.
"Simply put, it's a lack of experience," he said. "It's coupled with the fact teens are more susceptible than more mature drivers to peer pressure, increasing their likelihood of doing something common sense would otherwise dictate isn't smart."
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show 5,000 to 6,000 teens (ages 15 to 19) die annually in traffic collisions on U.S. roads, while another 300,000 are seriously injured. In a press release, Collins wrote that "many of these casualties are preventable, but not without the cooperative efforts of educators, law enforcement and parents, among others."
For many families in Pleasanton and all over the Bay Area, recent tragic events make this a sensitive subject. With several collision-related injuries and deaths of local teens, it is difficult to talk about prevention. While the past can't be changed and inexperience is not always the cause, Pleasanton Police, driving instructors and parents are taking action to help young drivers and their families avoid the heartache that can come with new drivers on the open road.
By the numbers
To put the numbers in perspective, at the meeting Collins said between March 2003 and September 2006, 2,600 soldiers were killed in Iraq, whereas 22,000 teens ages 15 to 19 died in car collisions. That's 537 per month and 18 per day.
Legislatures have come to realize the problem of collisions among young, inexperienced drivers. The disheartening statistics show thousands of new drivers, and often their passengers, suffer injuries or even death, leading many states, including California, to adopt laws that put restrictions on licenses in hopes these numbers will decrease.
In 1998, California began enforcing license restrictions, also referred to as a graduated license, upon new drivers under the age of 18. Originally the restrictions lasted for six months, but in 2006 it was extended to a year. Under the law, these drivers must be accompanied and supervised by a licensed driver who is at least 25 years old when transporting passengers under 20. They also are not allowed to drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Even though data is still coming in from states that recently enforced the law, the impact of the graduated licenses seems to be improving the harrowing statistics. Collins said the national reports he's seen have shown a 25 percent decrease in collision-related injuries for those ages 15 to 19 since the restrictions were enforced. As for California, the results show a decrease of almost 15 percent.
Hoping to see an even stronger decrease are local driving instructors, parents and law enforcement agents who are united in working to teach new licensees safe driving habits.
Driver's education of today
Along with the provisional license laws, much has changed in the process of earning the privilege to get behind the wheel. Some permit hopefuls are opting to learn the laws of the road online, instead of watching Red Asphalt 3 or hearing a lecture at a driving school. This has some licensed instructors worried.
"Half the online kids can't pass the [permit] test the first time; it takes two or three times," Greg Cook of Amador Driving School said.
The difference in the online and classroom courses, according to Cook, is the time spent absorbing the information. In his program, students must be present for four days (25 hours) of class, which also includes five 50-question tests. Online, however, Cook said the practice tests have 10 questions and it can be breezed through in a few hours. But, he added, quality learning can also depend on the school.
"A lot of schools don't teach the class," he said. "They just teach kids to pass the test. And that's not getting the message across."
Pari Eshtehardi of Driversity of Dublin, a driving school, agrees.
"The online course can't compare with our friendly classroom," she said, adding that 98 percent of their students pass the test after 30 hours of instruction.
"We train instructors to let them know how dangerous that weapon is; I mean car," she said. "It can destroy lives."
Once the permit test is completed, over a minimum six-month period student drivers must log in six hours of behind-the-wheel training with an instructor and 50 hours with a licensed parent/guardian over the age of 25.
With log sheets and student evaluation cards, Eshtehardi and business partner Nadar Amani tell parents the strengths and weaknesses of the learning driver. It also gives parents a guide on how to better instruct students once they begin the 50 hours of training.
After hours of practice, students can head to the Pleasanton DMV to meet with the infamous "Scary Larry," who administers the driving tests. Amani said while Larry doesn't really like the nickname, which is rumored to come from a California High School newspaper article, it's good to have someone ensuring only safe, capable drivers are being licensed. In fact, along with students' drawings of admiration for Driversity's instructors, Eshtehardi and Amani have a poster of Larry in the classroom, saying that he's a life saver.
Exceptions to the rule
Even though parents are responsible for 50 hours of supervised practice driving, sometimes they are unaware of the frequently changing laws. At the town hall meeting, parents expressed concern and confusion as to the exceptions to the provisional restrictions.
According to the DMV, exceptions can be made when reasonable transportation is not available and it is necessary to drive. As for driving with peers and during curfew, the law allows medical necessities, school or school-authorized activities, employment necessities, and the immediate need of a family memberˇas long as a note from a parent explains the reason and the time frame.
Commissioner Karen Rodrigue said the exceptions are clear and that any gray area is necessary to allow it to be applicable to a variety of situations.
"With any law, you have to filter through the verbiage," she said. "Go through each of the four (elements of exceptions) and make sure that the statement or letter covers each one, because the officer will look at it and see that it's legitimate to be driving."
And for those who are still issued a ticket for breaking the provisional license law, officers at the meeting reminded parents that those types of arguments are settled in traffic court, not on the street.
Legitimate excuses are very necessary as penalties and assessments added to the base fine of $35 can add up to a total citation of $161. Rodrigue went on to warn all drivers of a new assessment that adds $24 to every $10 in a base fine.
"For example, a carpool or red light violation in most parts is $100 in base fine, and with all the penalties and assessments it goes up to $361 to $371," she said. "It basically triples the ticket. The new fee that's going to be included is emergency medical assessment, will add an extra $240 to that ticket."
So whether it's violating the provisional license law or not stopping at a stop sign, she stresses the importance of having common sense for drivers of any age.
What do the driving instructors think about the graduated license?
"Thank god," Eshtehardi said. "It used to be six months. Thank god they changed it to a year."
Cook echoed her sentiments saying it's a good restriction for kids as well as parents and insurance companies. And that above all else, what motivates him to do well in his job, is that his students share the road with him, his daughter, son and new granddaughter.
"I've got a lot of responsibility to make sure I graduate safe drivers," he said.
Pleasanton takes action
While district schools no longer provide driver's education, they are partnering with police and organizations like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) to provide educational programs and assemblies.
One of the programs the police have helped bring to high school juniors and seniors is the "Every 15 Minutes" presentation. While it alternates between the schools each year, it's eerily close to a real-life depiction that depicts a collision and the aftermath where drunk driving is involved. A handful of the school's students are chosen to act out the gruesome scene which involves police, medics, a coroner and even a CHP helicopter. Furthering the message, those involved in the production are taken to an overnight retreat, leaving family and friends to ponder their absence.
"'Every 15 Minutes' is a fantastic experience and we'll continue to offer it," Collins said. "But we realized we needed to get the message out earlier."
And that's where the town hall meeting comes into play. The meeting held June 7 is the first of many the police will host once a semester. Although only about 20 parents were in attendance--compared to about 100 parents attending a drug and alcohol related town hall meeting in March--Collins said the parent feedback was positive and word of mouth and more publicity will strengthen the program.
Those involved with new driver training also stress the importance of parental involvement.
"Parents have to work with their kids and provide time, not just buy a car and put them out there," Cook said. "Parents can also put restrictions on provisional licenses, like maintaining a B average."
Rosales mentioned that Farmer's Insurance provides resources for both parents and students in language easy for both parties to understand. He also said that insurance companies often offer incentives for maintaining good grades and safe driving--some of which require contracts between teens and parents.
Collins agrees that part of the responsibility falls on parents.
"Parents need to recognize they themselves have an obligation to ensure their kids are prepared for all the responsibility and liability that comes with driving," he said.
And part of that responsibility comes with equipping them with the right tools.
"In wealthier communities, such as ours here in Pleasanton, parents sometimes get caught up in trying to make sure their kid has the coolest car on the block," he said, recalling a time at Foothill High School when a 16 or 17 year old student hopped into a Porsche Boxter S. "It's an enviable ride, but not really the greatest way to ensure your kid learns safe driving habits."
Rorigue realizes it's a lot of pressure on parents and that teens need to share in the responsibility too. Beyond that, she emphasized the need for drivers, no matter the age, to practice safe driving habits.
"I would like for kids to have more common sense," she continued. "If they really thought about what they're doing and whether it's going to get them there quicker--it's just going to save them a minute and a half. But it's not limited to kids. Go on the freeway any day and sometimes it's very scary."
Teen driving resources
* Driversity of Dublin, www.driversityofdublin.com
* Amador Valley Driving School, www.amadorvalleydrivingschool.com
* DMV Teen Driver, www.dmv.ca.gov/teenweb
* Farmer's Insurance's YES (You're Essential to Safety) program, www.farmers.com/FarmComm/WebSite/html/auto/YES/Yes_1.html
Provisional license restriction exceptions
When reasonable transportation is not available and it is necessary for you to drive, the law grants the following exceptions for minors to drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. or to transport an immediate family member unaccompanied and unsupervised.
The law requires that you must carry a note explaining why you must drive and when the necessity will end.
*Medical Necessity: The note must be signed by your physician and contain a diagnosis and probable date when recovery will end your need to drive.
*School or School˝Authorized Activities: The note must be signed by your school principal, dean, or his or her designee and include a reason for the school or school˝authorized activity and the date when the activity will end.
* Employment Necessity: The note must be signed by your employer and verify employment and the date your employment will end.
*Immediate Need of Family Member: The note must be signed by your parent or legal guardian and include the reason and date the necessity will end.
*Emancipated Minor: No documentation is needed for this exemption, however you must have already declared yourself emancipated by completing a DMV form and by providing Proof of Financial Responsibility (SR 1P) in lieu of your guarantors' signatures when you applied for your instruction permit.