Teen deaths put focus on safety

By Kathy Jefcoats

Hampton mother Deborah Carter is scared.

In about two months, her oldest daughter, Mandi, will become eligible to drive by herself, with limitations as set by Georgia law, of course. Recent teen fatalities in Henry and Clayton counties have Carter apprehensive.

"Anytime there is an accident, I try and find out the cause and then we talk about it," she said. "Whether it is speeding or too many kids in the car that causes distractions."

Mandi will turn 16 in two weeks so she's been driving on a learner's permit. That means she's not allowed to drive without a licensed driver 21 or older in the car with her. Once she gets her license, though the rules are relaxed a bit.

"She won't test for six weeks because that was when we could get an appointment and that's fine with me," said Deborah Carter. "Even then she will be very limited as to where she can go by herself."

Driver's education is not taught in Henry or Clayton county schools so it is up to parents to ensure their teen drivers get the preparation they need to get behind the wheel on their own. Effective Jan. 1, 2002, in Georgia, teens must complete an approved driver's education course and a cumulative total of at least 20 hours of supervised driving with six hours at night or a total cumulative total of at least 40 hours of supervised driving with six at night.

Parents who opt to take on the responsibility themselves must sign affidavits attesting to the driving hours. However, some pay more than $100 to private driving schools for a one-day course. There are free options in both counties.

In Henry County, deputies Jimmie Spence and Tammy Dudley teach a free two-hour class once a month at the Henry Sheriff's Office. Parents Reducing Incidents of Driver Error class is offered through the University of Georgia's Occupant Safety Program based in Conyers.

Interest waned during the summer months, said Spence, so classes weren't held in June and July. It was during that time that several teens died in car crashes and Spence expected a peak in participants for August.

"We had 10 parents and teens sign up but only six showed up for the class last week," he said. "You'd think we'd be turning people away. With all the teen deaths we've had, you'd think we'd be slammed."

Four of the teens are students at Union Grove High School. Two teens killed in the most recent Henry County wreck either attended or previously attended that school. Spence said he hopes the public has not become as complacent about teen deaths as it has about drunk driving fatalities.

"People have come to expect 362 DUI deaths every week in America," he said. "I guess we've become numb to the fact that teens are going to die and I don't understand it."

Spence said parents blame the schools for taking driver's ed classes out of academic offerings but stressed that teaching kids to drive should be a parental responsibility.

"The responsibility falls to the parents, not the schools," he said. "Parents need to spend more time with their kids, teaching them to drive. They need to spend more time with their kids, period."

The Clayton County Sheriff's Office also provides free driver's training. Deputies Riding in Vehicles Evaluating Students was established more than three years ago in response to teen deaths there, said sheriff's Lt. Tina Daniel.

Twice a day, one Saturday a month, four deputies from the department's youth education division teach a maximum of 10 teens how to drive safely. Deputy and teen get into a car and drive n really, as daunting as that sounds.

"A lot of kid say they have never been so nervous in their lives," Daniel said. "We try to make them comfortable, hold normal conversations with them to see how they really act during driving."

The DRIVES program starts with a one-two hour class that covers new laws and addresses myths and questions. Parents are required to attend the class with their teens. Parents have to attend Henry County's PRIDE class, too.

Daniel said the program gets a lot of positive feedback.

"We preach experience," she said. "So just getting the information out has got to be helping. If we can potentially save at least one life, it's worth it."

Spence said he wishes more parents would take teen driving seriously.

"Unless you are learning to fly an airplane, learning to drive is the most important thing you will ever do," he said. "It is taken so lightly."

Deborah Carter said she is satisfied with the parental driver training Mandi is getting.

"I feel confident her training will carry over when she gets on her own," she said. "She's a smart, responsible child."

Karen Pierce, too, is taking her role as teacher to her 15-year-old daughter seriously. Pierce's daughter knew the teens who died on Moseley Road and helped construct a memorial in their honor. While acknowledging mistakes teen drivers make, Pierce said she wonders about the example being set by adults.

"What does it teach her when she is doing the speed limit and adults are honking at her, riding her bumper and passing her at high speeds?" Pierce said. "Oh, but it's easy for adults to justify our speeding. We need to get to work. Or drop the kids off. Or get to a meeting."

Pierce said adults need to take a look at their own driving habits to see how they may impact teens. Carter said she is even more cognizant of how she handles her car while riding with Mandi.

"I watch more what I do," said Carter. "I think adults should be setting an example as safer drivers."

While Carter points to distractions as a prime reason teens crash, Daniel said the cause is usually something as simple as a lack of experience.

"You're in a 2-ton vehicle trying to take a curve too fast," Daniel said. "Someone who has been driving for a while may not have a problem with it but not someone who is just learning. It is the same for adults who have been driving 20 years but not ever on snow or ice. They are the ones out there spinning and in ditches the first time they drive in the snow."

For information on the Clayton County DRIVES program, call the office at 678-479-5322 or access the Web www.claytonsheriff.com. The Henry Sheriff's Office can be reached at 770-954-2200.