Experience a problem for young drivers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 5, 2000

Just about anyone over the age of 16 can look back on the day of achieving one's driver's license with fond memories.

The day represents freedom for most people, but that freedom can all too quickly turn to tragedy as it has for a number of families here in Butler County alone.

Over the past few weeks, The Advocate has taken an in-depth look at the problem of teen age accidents, and the general consensus of all of our sources is that teenagers today are not receiving the kind of training they need to become responsible drivers from the very beginning.

Students at Greenville High School have the option of taking an elective course of driver's education, and the course is open to all students over the age of 15. Completion of the course can qualify student drivers for insurance discounts, but most experts would agree that completing a driver's education course alone is not enough training to make someone a safe driver.

Greenville Police Chief Lonzo Ingram says parents make the difference.

"The most dangerous thing a parent can do is turn a 16-year-old child loose in an automobile," Ingram said. "As time goes by we continue to have more and more vehicles on the road and that is a dangerous place to put an inexperienced driver."

Ingram said he recommends that parents get involved in the driver training of their children from the time they qualify for a learner's permit. He said parents should be able to communicate fully what is expected of a young driver while behind the wheel, and the rules of the road should be adhered to completely.

"As parents we have to provide them with the best instruction possible," he said, "And hold them accountable for their actions behind the wheel."

Butler County has been helping to hold young drivers more accountable for their actions behind the steering wheel for more than 15 years.

In 1985, a community service program was started that allowed youthful traffic violators to do community service as a way to keep violations off their records. Ingram said the program not only helps the student understand that there are consequences for poor driving habits, but also helps parents by relieving them from the financial responsibility of a ticket.

At Greenville High School and other public schools with driver training programs, instructors closely follow a curriculum outlined by the state board of education.

GHS Assistant Principal Don Yancey said the 45-day program consists of 96 minutes per day of training. Half of that time, Yancey said, is spent in the classroom with instructional and simulator training and the other half is spent behind the wheel of a vehicle with a trained instructor.

Yancey said all teachers who instruct driver training must attend summer training sessions to be certified by the state. The certification, he said, is required before a teacher is considered qualified to teach driver training.

As part of the driver-training program, officers from the Greenville Police Department and other law enforcement agencies speak to students to provide an understanding of the consequences of drinking and driving.

According to Alabama law, "a person who is under the age of 21 years shall not drive or be in actual physical control of any vehicle if there is .02 percentage or more by weight of alcohol in his or her blood."

This distinction differs greatly from the BAC limits for adults, which was reduced in Alabama a few years ago from .10 to .08 percent, and young people who find themselves in violation of this law will find that the consequences are more trouble than a night of fun is worth.

Young drivers convicted of DUI under this law lose their license for 30 days and pay fines and court costs of up to $700 for the first offense. These penalties are accompanied by a one-year probationary period and can face regular substance testing during that time.

The .02 percent BAC required for the conviction of a juvenile for DUI could easily be reached by an average teenager by the consumption of just one beer, Ingram said, and this "zero tolerance" of teenagers driving under the influence has been instituted in every state in the nation.

However, Ingram said the problem of teenage drinking and driving may not be as bad here in Butler County as it is in other parts of the state. Inexperience behind the wheel, he says, is probably the largest factor to consider and without increased education and training for young people the problem may never get any better.

"I think the legislature really dropped the ball when they failed to pass the graduated driver's license bill," Ingram said. "It has proven to be effective in saving lives in other states, and it gives young drivers the opportunity to get more experience during their first year."

He also said parents should carefully consider the vehicles they allow young drivers to operate. Today's smaller cars, Ingram said, provide less protection than did cars of the past, and create more damage when wrecked.

"What we are seeing today are smaller, high speed vehicles made mostly out of fiberglass that simply disintegrate on impact," Ingram said. "I don't believe teenagers have the largest number of accidents here in Butler County, but they are usually the worst because they involve smaller cars."

In the fifth and final part of this series, we will explore what teens are doing to help each other become better drivers, and also provide some suggestions to help parents find the safest vehicle available for their teens.