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Young drivers listen, but do they learn?

A tragedy focuses attention on the need for caution. A teacher hopes the lesson sticks.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 20, 2007

Driver education instructor Dave Redding gives his class some last minute instructions before they got behind the wheel on the Northeast High School driving range.
Amra Durmisevic, 15, looks both ways before making a turn on 19th Street during Northeast High's drivers' education class. Students in the class spend 40 minutes on the driving range and 30-40 minutes driving on nearby streets per day.

Drivers' education instructor Dave Redding talks to his students on the driving range with a radio while sitting in the control tower at Northeast High. The tower gives him a unique vantage point where he can see everything the students do.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Few things escape coach Dave Redding as he sits at his command post above the driving range at Northeast High School.

The fledgling attempts at parallel parking. The jerky starts and abrupt stops. The overeager efforts to execute a perfect three-point turn on the first try.

Early Wednesday morning, just days after a weekend crash that killed one Northeast High student and injured five others, Redding was communicating via radio with a group of 15- and 16-year-olds in his first-period driver's education class.

"That's an incomplete stop there," he said.

"Gentlemen, you shouldn't have gotten around that corner so quickly that you had to back up."

"I didn't see a turn signal there, folks."

For half an hour, the five 2008 black Ford Fusions criss-crossed the range beneath his tower. The day's assignment was perpendicular and angle parking, backing up and driving in a circle.

"Sometimes they brush the cyclone fence coming around a turn," Redding said. "Occasionally, they'll ding a car. That's inevitable."

But what happened last Saturday night was truly tragic, Redding said. The driver of the car was a 15-year-old who got his learner's permit only a month ago. None of the students involved in the crash was wearing a seat belt. Some had told their parents conflicting stories about what they were doing that evening.

Redding gathered his students first thing Monday to talk to them about the importance of not only obeying driving rules, but obeying their parents as well.

He hopes his message made an impression.

"Like any tragedy, this one will have an effect right away," he said. "How long it will last, you just don't know."

* * *

After range practice Wednesday, Jasper Quach and Clifford Berthelot, both 16-year-old juniors, prepared to take one of the cars on the road. Quach, in the driver's seat, adjusted his mirrors. Berthelot slipped into the seat behind him.

"Pulling away from a curb is just like what?" Redding asked from the seat next to Quach. Neither student knew.

"It's just like making a lane change," Redding said. "What do we do when we make a lane change?"

"We put our turn signal on," Quach said.

As Quach prepared to turn onto 54th Avenue N, Redding reminded him he was in a school zone - and that if he got a ticket for speeding, he would be responsible for paying the fine.

As Quach made a right-hand turn, Redding asked: "What's the speed limit in a neighborhood if it's not posted?"

Berthelot guessed 35 mph. Redding told him it's 30.

"Thirty is a good speed for a young driver," he said. "I hear kids say, 'My dad says if all the cars are going 60, you can go 60 too.' That's not correct."

For the next 15 minutes, Redding quizzed them on the difference between a two-way and a four-way stop, how far in advance they should signal for a turn and where to position their hands on the steering wheel.

"Who gets the ticket if your passengers aren't wearing a seat belt?" Redding asked after Quach and Berthelot had switched places.

"I get the ticket if they're under 18," Berthelot said.

* * *

Back at school, Carley Austgen, 15, sat in the bleachers watching the next group of students on the range. She had worn flip-flops to school that day, so she was barred from driving.

"I remember the first time I was out there," she said. "I took it like a personal insult when coach told me I was doing something wrong before I realized he was trying to help me."

Austgen said she knows Redding meant well when he talked to her class on Monday about the fatal accident. But she doubts that the kids who needed to hear the message the most will heed it.

"There are a lot of irresponsible kids out there," she said. "If they're not learning the small lessons, like about not fighting and things like that, what makes people think they'll learn the big ones?"

Redding says those are the kids he worries about most. He can help the ones who lack confidence. But young drivers who are cocky and overconfident are more difficult to reach.

That's why drivers' education teachers can refuse to administer the skills driving test at the end of the course even if the student has gotten good grades during the semester.

"We look for a right attitude along with the ability to drive," Redding said.

* * *

As first period melted into second period Wednesday, the Northeast students continued to talk about the weekend accident. Their main concern appeared to be who was at fault and who would be charged.

They spoke of other friends and acquaintances who have been in car accidents and reminisced about a Northeast High graduate killed in a motorcycle crash two years ago.

Meanwhile, Redding headed out in one of the black cars with two more students just as it started to rain.

Donna Winchester can be reached at or (727) 893-8413.

FAST FACTS: Tips for parents
  • Take it slowly. Work on the fundamentals, slowly increasing the amount of traffic you expose your child to. Don't rush your child into heavy traffic.
  • Limit your child's driving to weekdays at first, then weekday evenings. Save weekend and night driving until your child is more experienced.
  • Limit the number of young people allowed in the car at one time.
  • Make your child responsible for paying his or her own traffic fines.

FAST FACTS: Young drivers and safety

  • Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among children and young adults. More than 3,800 young drivers ages 15 to 20 are killed every year in traffic crashes.
  • Although young drivers represent only 6.6 percent of the nation's licensed drivers, they are involved in 14.8 percent of fatal crashes.
  • More than 326,000 young drivers are injured annually.
  • Exceeding the posted speed limit or driving at an unsafe speed is the most common error in fatal accidents.
  • About 30 percent of crashes killing young drivers involve alcohol.

Source: National Safety Council


[Last modified September 20, 2007, 01:09:10]

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