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A driver’s license is an exciting rite of passage for most teens but a source of anxiety for their parents.
DON PETERSEN | Special to The Roanoke Times
Drivers ed student Allison Akers, 17, gets a tip from instructor Jim Stepp as she drives on Main Street in Salem. During lessons, Stepp gently quizzes his students about what lies ahead and why they make certain maneuvers.
DON PETERSEN | Special to the Roanoke Times
Lindsey Akers (right) and his daughter, Allison, chat with driving instructor Jim Stepp. Allison only started thinking about driving a few months ago. “I didn’t want to push it,” her dad said. “The longer she waits, the more mature she is.”
DON PETERSEN | Special to The Roanoke Times
Allison Akers concentrates on the road during a drivers ed lesson. She says she doesn’t use her cellphone while driving.
Monday, July 29, 2013
Allison Akers is in the market for a black cargo van.
She wants a van she can drive to the Starlite Drive-In in Christiansburg, throw open the rear doors, wrap up in a blanket and watch movies such as “World War Z” from the comfort of her very own space.
She wants to drive it to Christiansburg High School, where she will be a senior next month. Until she finds the van of her dreams, she will probably drive her mom’s car, which beats getting chauffeured around by her parents.
Before any of that happens, she needs to get her driver’s license . Allison, who is 17, is finishing her driver’s training and will earn her license soon. She could have gotten it more than a year ago, when she became eligible at 16, but opted to wait.
That was fine with her dad, Lindsey Akers.
“She didn’t think about driving until about eight months ago,” her father said. “I didn’t want to push it. The longer she waits, the more mature she is.”
That maturity should make her a better driver, according to health and transportation experts. Teens who put off getting their licenses for a year or two have lower accident rates than younger drivers.
Few phrases bring more dread to the hearts of parents of teenage drivers than “accident rates.”
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, teenagers are just 7 percent of the driving population in the United States, yet they are involved in 13 percent of deadly crashes. The Centers for Disease Control has found that teen drivers are three times more likely to be in a fatal crash than divers older than 20.
I will stop with the spine-chilling numbers. Parents know the dangers all too well.
Let us focus on the positives, such as the fact that the number of teenage driving fatalities has been falling for a decade (although the numbers rose a bit in 2012).
The likelihood that your child will be involved in a horrible crash is still relatively small.
If you spend any time in a vehicle with a teen driver, you will notice several things that they don’t do well, generally speaking. They don’t anticipate potential hazards. They don’t see road signs until the last second. They are not very good with rearview mirrors. They tailgate. They speed.
“They don’t have a real rhythm to their driving, yet,” said Jim Stepp, a longtime teacher and coach who has taught driver’s education in the Roanoke Valley for more than 30 years.
“They have a big problem with lane changing. They don’t head-check [their mirrors] because they might see that their parents don’t head-check when they switch lanes. But what they don’t know is that their parents have been checking traffic all along and know the situation around them.”
Stepp, a former Salem High School baseball coach, owns Brambleton Driving School in Roanoke. He allowed me to ride with him and a couple of his students — Rachel Green and Allison — during some recent on-the-road training.
Stepp has a terrific demeanor for a driving coach. His voice is calm and even-keel as he speaks to his students from the passenger seat of the driving school’s 2011 Kia. He gently quizzes them about what lies ahead and why they made a certain maneuver.
“That was a nice, smooth lane change,” he said, as Allison weaved through Salem traffic. “What could you have done a little better? ... A little better head check, that’s right.”
Allison does a good job of maintaining a steady rate of speed and signaling before switching lanes. Stepp turns on the radio and tunes in a satellite pop station. He knows that when Allison starts driving on her own, she will most likely have music playing, so it is good to have the radio on as she learns.
She said she does not text, make calls or mess with the radio dial while driving.
“A friend nearly ran off the road” while on the phone, she said later. “I was so mad. I don’t mess with my phone or radio unless I am parked or at a stop sign.”
That is music to a parent’s ears.
On July 1, Virginia tightened restrictions on young drivers.
Drivers under age 18 can only carry one passenger under 21. This is significant, because the CDC reports that the presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk for young drivers.
Virginia teens are also prohibited from driving between midnight and 4 a.m., with certain exceptions such as driving to or from work, a school-sanctioned activity, with a parent or guardian or when responding to an emergency. Basically, the state does not allow teens to engage in plain old joy riding after midnight.
Combined with the new law that makes texting while driving a primary offense, Virginia is making an effort to reduce teenage driving mishaps.
With schools opening within the next month or so, more teens will be on the road — driving to and from school, to football games, homecoming dances and other activities. Parents can teach good driving habits to their children by making sure their kids use their seat belts, that they don’t drive with a carload of friends and that they never drink alcohol and get behind the wheel.
If parents enforce their own rules of the road, the odds are good that their teen drivers will one day become safe, mature adult drivers.
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