Doubts persist about teen drivers

Even teens wonder if they are ready for the road. Some adults want to do something about it.

Published September 24, 2007

Christina Choe leads the life of a typical overachieving teenager. The student body president at Wesley Chapel High School ranks among the top of her class, and she's active in her church. For her 18th birthday recently, her parents bought her a car.

But there's one thing Choe doesn't have: a driver's license.

Choe has had her learner's permit for more than a year. Yet she refuses to get behind the wheel of her Honda Civic.

"I'm not confident at all," Choe said. "The problem with most teenagers is they're cocky. They think it's such an easy thing, but you can easily mess up and the consequences can be serious."

Choe is not alone in her fears, made worse by recent crashes involving teenage drivers. In the last month, a 14-year-old St. Petersburg girl and a 17-year-old Land O'Lakes boy were killed when teen drivers lost control.

Skittish parents wonder if their 16-year-olds are mature and experienced enough to handle Florida roads. Instructors at supplemental driving schools are dismayed at the lack of driver's education training. Politicians ponder change.

Even teens themselves sometimes wonder:

Are we ready?

- - -

Trish Heinicka's son Jeffrey has been looking at cars online since he was 13. Now that he's only months from getting his learner's permit, his mother hopes all of her lectures on the dangers of driving have made an impact.

"It's very scary," Heinicka of St. Petersburg said. "You always tell them, 'It just takes a second.' But you wonder how much of it sinks in. Teenage brains aren't always developed enough to understand."

Russ Garvey, the motorsport director for the Florida Suncoast Chapter of BMW Car Clubs of America, says there's a need for his chapter's Car Control Clinic, a nonprofit driver's education program. The clinics target teen drivers who want more advanced training beyond public school driver's education.

"When I got my license at 16, all I had to do was make three right turns at stop signs and parallel park," said Garvey, now 57. "It's ludicrous. It really is."

The clinics also focus on safe driving at high speeds, which may seem like a contrary message to send to teens. But Garvey thinks it's a skill that typical driving schools neglect.

"It's just like how you tell kids not to have sex," he said. "But you'd better give them prophylactics because they're going to do it anyway."

- - -

Around the United States, teen driving restrictions carry varying levels of toughness. In New Jersey, kids can't get a license until they turn 17. In Washington, D.C., seasonal curfews are imposed on drivers younger than 18. Several states prohibit teens from using cell phones while driving.

In Florida, regulations are lenient by comparison. A kid can get a learner's permit at 15, and after 12 months and a minimum of 50 hours of driving which an adult must confirm, the teen can apply for a driver's license. There are no passenger or cell phone restrictions.

To some state politicians, this seems lax considering that crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. Those fatalities can multiply by as much as four to eight times with high speed, extra passengers, text messaging and other risk factors associated with teen driving.

State Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, is sponsoring a bill that would limit the number of passengers that teenagers can have in their vehicles, mimicking laws in 35 other states. Dubbed "the anti-double-dating bill" by its critics, the bill was turned down by a House committee vote in March. Skidmore has since filed the bill again.

"Some folks felt that parents should be the ones making the decisions," she said. "But the reality is, we don't teach our kids how to drive properly. They don't understand the magnitude of controlling a 2-ton weapon."

- - -

St. Petersburg Catholic High junior Laurel Deininger wonders if it's worth it. She's 16 and, at her mother's urging, finally got her learner's permit. The first time she tried driving, she was backing out of her driveway and almost hit the mailbox. It scared her enough to avoid driving for a month.

She has only tried driving a couple of times since then and, even in an empty parking lot and on quiet subdivision roads, she feels nervous. She doesn't want to take driver's education because she would "be embarrassed being in the car with other people," she said.

Unlike most of her friends, she feels she simply isn't ready to drive. She's happy bumming rides to school and swim practice and prefers just being a kid.

"You hear about people in accidents and see really bad wreckage on the side of the road," she said. "I just don't want to be responsible."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or nipps@sptimes.com