BIDDEFORD – Freedom and independence are what most teens think about when they get their driver’s license.
Unfortunately, they’re also apt to forget about the responsibilities that come with driving and the duty to follow the rules of the road, which for them includes not using handheld electronic devices at all.
Now, with the memory of nine recent teen driving fatalities in Maine still fresh, state and local officials are devising new ways to keep teen drivers safer and combat the “deadly D’s” – distracted, drunk and drugged driving.
In Augusta, those efforts include a likely updating of driver education curriculum and tweaking both learner’s permit and intermediate licensing rules. Locally, the Biddeford police have just launched a teen driving awareness program designed for parents.
In an average year, according to Charlie Summers, Maine’s secretary of state, nearly two teens are killed in car crashes each month. But since Christmas, there have been nine such fatalities in the state, including multiple teen deaths on Christmas Day in Palermo, on Jan. 7 in West Paris and on Jan. 8 in Biddeford.
According to statistics, the leading cause of death for young people between 16 and 24 both nationally and locally continues to be car crashes.
Summers believes part of the problem lies with outdated driving instruction curriculum, the high cost of private driver’s education classes and the ubiquitous cell phone, which people of all ages use for everything from surfing the Internet to text messaging.
To tackle these issues, he’s been holding Conservations with Communities sessions all across Maine this month, and has also convened a technical review panel that will make recommendations to the Legislature this spring, two initiatives that are designed to make driving safer for teens.
Summers said the biggest problem with the driver education curriculum standards is that they haven’t been updated since 1996, and most teens are getting the same driving instruction as their parents did before them.
“I think what we need to do, at a minimum,” he said, “is to incorporate the same new technologies, methodologies and techniques that kids are used to in their regular classroom.”
This is particularly important, Summers said, because unlike 20 or even 10 years ago, “technology is with us wherever we go, even in the car.”
What the government and police can’t address without the help of parents and the community at large, though, is the feeling of invincibility that teens have and their higher likelihood of ignoring general safety tips, from keeping a safe following distance to wearing a seat belt to refraining from drinking and driving and texting and driving.
“We are allowing a young person to take charge of a 4,000- to 5,000-ton piece of metal, which they are driving at a high rate of speed,” Summers said. “All I want is to make sure that everyone gets the best driver training possible
“Too many tragedies occur on Maine roadways involving young drivers,” he added. “This past year alone, there were around 50 fatal crashes where a young driver – someone between the ages of 16 and 24 – was involved. That’s almost one crash a week.”
To change that statistic, Summers is considering implementing many of the recommendations he’s heard from parents and others at the Conversations with Communities events.
Those include doubling the number of hours teens must practice driving with a permit before they can apply for a license; lengthening the time teens are unable to drive with other passengers, other than immediate family, from six months to as long as a year; and changing the curfew under the intermediate license from midnight-5 a.m. to 10 p.m.-5 a.m.
“All the studies show that the majority of teen driving fatalities take place between 10 p.m. and midnight,” Summers said.
He understands that extending the curfew by two hours could be an inconvenience for teens that work or play sports, but, he said, “We are talking about saving lives here.
“I know that getting a driver’s license is still a rite of passage and for the kids it’s all about independence, freedom and fun,” Summers added. “But, we really need to impress upon young drivers the responsibility they are taking on and the long-term effects of their actions.”
The plain fact is that teen drivers are three to four times more likely to be involved in a car crash, with most teen crashes occurring on weekends and at night, according to statistics collected by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. And, the association said, 65 percent of all teens killed in car crashes are passengers in vehicles operated by other teens.
That’s where parents and driving education schools can come in, according to both Summers and the Biddeford Police Department, which has begun offering a Teen Driving Awareness program this winter.
“We can change all the laws and curriculum we want, but if we don’t have the buy-in of parents, then it won’t matter,” Summers said.
On Tuesday, Robert Flint, traffic specialist for the Biddeford police, led the first of four planned Teen Driving Awareness programs. The seminars are specifically targeted to parents of pre-permitted and newly permitted teens and will be held three more times this winter.
About a dozen parents and two teens turned out for the first information-packed session. Flint said while parents can’t keep their kids in a cocoon, there are lots of things they can do to influence their teen’s driving behavior.
The most important thing, he said, is for parents to stay involved and to keep the lines of communication open. He also said parents have to realize they’re the ones in charge.
“You don’t need (the police) or the secretary of state to impose a license suspension,” Flint said. “You can take it away yourself.”
To help eliminate what he called the “deadly D’s,” Flint said it’s important that teens understand they cannot text and drive or talk on the phone and drive. In fact, under state law, anyone under the age of 18 cannot use any handheld electronic device while driving at all.
While the main issue with teen drivers is inexperience, Flint said, there’s no doubt that being tied to their smartphones for most of their waking life has led to more and more teens texting and driving and talking on the phone and driving.
“The point we want to get across is that you can’t drive and do something else at the same time,” he added. “The fact is that driving is a full-time job.”
To illustrate his point, Flint had one of the teens present Tuesday try to text while also catching a tennis ball, which the teen could not do without either missing the ball or dropping his phone.
Other important things that parents can do, Flint said, is to take note of what their child is doing while driving and to model good behavior themselves.
While it’s not illegal for an adult with an unrestricted license to talk on a cell phone while driving, Flint said, if parents do it, their kids are more likely to, as well.
“What I would suggest is that you require your teen to put their cell phone in the glove compartment. Otherwise, if it’s right there and it rings or beeps, you know they’re going to answer it,” he said.
Flint said teens crash because they are not keeping track of things like their speed, who’s behind them, who’s in front of them and who’s next to them. They’re also much more likely to speed and not keep a safe following distance, which means they have less time to stop.
Flint said it’s important for parents to enforce seat belt requirements for their teens. He said nationally, teens have the lowest seat belt rate usage of any age group.
Bob Mullen, who’s been teaching driving for 40 years, said the practice that a teen gets after completing the driver’s education course is the most important thing.
He recommends at least 75 hours of driving, in all kinds of weather on all kinds of roads at all times of day. Mullen said that in addition to inattention, which includes texting and driving, the other reason teens crash is inexperience.
“You have to do the seat time,” he said. “The old adage is true that practice makes perfect.”
Mullen and Summers also believe that the reason the crash rate seems to be climbing for teens who are 18 and 19 in Maine is that many young people are not taking driver education, which can cost anywhere between $250 to $550 per three-week session. Instead, teens are simply waiting until they’re an adult to get their license.
Mullen said most high schools no longer offer driver education, and so for teens between 15 and 18 the only option is to take private driving lessons from an accredited driving school.
He praised Summers for his effort to review and update the driving education curriculum in Maine.
“We definitely need to revise our standards and make things more difficult,” said Mullen. “Kids think they’re invincible so they speed, they drink and they text. For them, 30 seems a long way away and so they don’t think about consequences.”
Flint agreed, but said it’s not just teens who don’t think about the responsibilities that come with driving.
“On a daily basis, the most dangerous thing most of us do is to get behind the wheel,” he said.