New institute to give teen driving safety a lift

By Justin Boron

An infinite length of road fits into the community room at the Clayton County police headquarters thanks to a local push for increased teen driving education.

The Safe America Foundation, a group dedicated to teen driving safety, has trimmed down the roadway experience to simulators that offer a wealth of virtual scenarios to teens before they get behind the wheel on the roads of reality.

The drivers training curriculum, taught by Clayton County police officers, is one component of a community effort to overcome the absence of drivers education in public schools.

When state school funding dropped in the late 80s, required in-school driving programs were replaced with expensive optional courses.

Clayton County has not had a drivers education program since the early 90s, said Charles White, the school system's spokesman.

Through grants, scholarships, and free classes, teen safety advocates in the county aim to rejuvenate drivers education and curb fatalities in young people, a group that composed 271 of the highway fatalities last year in Georgia.

The new South Metro Atlanta Teen Driver Institute held its first class Tuesday, with officers guiding students like Mallory Sewell of Lovejoy High School through the simulator chapters.

"It's a lot different than driving a real car," Sewell said.

The driving institute is an alternative to traditional drivers education that doesn't require a license to learn, opening up the program to 13 to 15 year-olds who haven't been permitted.

"Safe America is addressing a market out there that has never been addressed before," said Robert Dallas, the director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

Students work through a curriculum of driving scenarios much like the levels of a video game. The course, which costs $150, takes 6 hours to complete.

Safe America is arranging for scholarships from local businesses that could help train the projected 1,000 students that County Police Chief Daryl Partain said would drive through course in 2005.

Enthusiasm for the school has spread into local government as well.

The program exceeds any other drivers education tool, said County Commission Chairman Crandle Bray.

"Drivers education doesn't match with this," Bray said. "It has every kind of scenario."

Students Against Destructive Decisions at Mt. Zion High School also is working to educate their peers on the importance of solid driving experience.

The group received a $2,000 grant from the Governor's Office of Highway Safety to reduce the injury and death of young drivers.

The group's sponsor, Michelle Hoy, said she hopes to raise awareness about the risks of driving unsafely through seatbelt checks at school, a red ribbon week, and prom promise.

Several of the club members said that programs like the ones offered by Safe America were sufficient education tools.

Drivers education should come back to the schools, said Courtney Hatch, the club president.

Group members Amanda Stacy, Mozette Walters, and Shaina Gilmore said they couldn't understand why home economics would be funded instead of a class like drivers education.

Hatch said she doesn't accept the expense issue as an excuse.

"Lives are costly too," she said.

Hatch has plans to organize all the SADD groups in Clayton County for a demonstration of their concerns about the program's absence from required curriculum.

"We need to come together as one," she said.