Stephen and Matt’s deaths caused an incredible outpouring of grief. Yet, it’s only the latest of a series of tragedies that seem to happen every year in Cobb County and metro Atlanta.
For over 10 years, I can remember an annual “ritual” of new parents being introduced to me; brought here to translate their grief into action and find a way to keep other teens from dying. It seems clear to me — with Sprayberry High School having lost three students and two recent graduates; another Austell teen having died in a single car wreck last year; and Lassiter High having lost an outstanding graduate while having another seriously injured last July — that we need to do something. After all, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for Georgia teens according to data compiled by the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. Furthermore, Cobb County is second only to Fulton in the number of young driver fatalities.
Thanks to the changes in Georgia’s teen licensing laws in the last 15 years, including the adoption of Joshua’s Law, other Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) restrictions and universal seatbelt requirements, the total number of teen and novice driver accidents and fatalities have declined. This fact that teen driving deaths are at historic lows is no comfort to the friends and families of those who have just died. Neither should this be to the rest of us, as long as one teen dies needlessly.
How can we impact this horrific problem? Here are three common sense suggestions:
Require every driver getting his or her first license to have taken some form of driver training. Georgia’s GDL laws have been credited with lowering teen crash fatalities. But, because they only apply to teens under 18, they offer a perverse incentive to “wait” until you’re 18 to take your driver’s license test (since there is no requirement for older teens to have driver education).
As it stands, any 18-year-old can show up to DDS and, as long as they pass the driving test and have no previous driving infractions, leave with the same license as someone who has been driving for 20 years.
Requiring those obtaining their first drivers license to have taken some form of driver training will close this loophole. And let me add that taking online training is no substitute for having a qualified, independent instructor teach a teen ‘behind-the-wheel.’ This Ought To Be A Requirement That Every Parent Would Want.
Allow all youths the right to access driver training. In 2010, there were 941 students in Cobb County and 13,000 around the state who had their intermediate licenses revoked for having too many unexcused school absences. Under a 1996 state law, students who drop out of school or have 10 or more unexcused absences lose their license for a year or until they turned 18, when the law no longer applies.
The intentions behind this law are great. Driving is a privilege and the law, in theory, should act as a carrot to encourage at-risk youth to stay in school. However, the law’s unintended result is that it prevents teens who are statistically more likely to engage in risky behaviors from accessing any driver training. This law is fostering an environment where the most potentially dangerous, inexperienced drivers take to the road with the least amount of training. This needs to be corrected.
Have the Georgia Legislature enforce its own law. In 2005, Safe America recommended to Gov. Sonny Perdue that he sign “Joshua’s Law.” It stipulated that youths who want to get a license at age 16 must complete a certified driver’s education course. To offset this new financial burden on parents, the law added 5 percent to traffic violation fees in Georgia and expected to raise $10 million a year to underwrite school-based driver education or cover scholarships for accredited driving schools.
But those dollars have never been allocated for driver education scholarships! Due to tight budgets since the economic downturn, the Legislature has not funded the program or approved any new grants since 2009. Only 22 of the 64 school districts that applied for continued funding have received it.
Finding a way to make budgets work in these lean economic times is difficult work. But, as the economy improves over the coming years and state coffers fill, the Legislature needs to fulfill the obligation it made to parents, teens and all drivers eight years ago.
The Safe America Foundation will continue to work, meanwhile, to build our own scholarship fund so we can offer more teens free or reduced driver training. Working with partners such as Chevrolet, we’ll offer all Cobb high schools free training assemblies and special presentations, while also planning a regional “Training Academy” in May at the Cobb Galleria. Our goal — this year as all years — is to make sure each teen (and parent) gets the skills and behavioral training that can keep more teens from making a mistake that can have a tragic ending.
Len Pagano is CEO of the Safe America Foundation, a nonprofit that trains more than 1,000 teen drivers each year. The Foundation is headquartered in east Cobb County on Sandy Plains Road.