Local 16-year-olds line up to drive

Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Augusta Christian Schools student James Grayson, 16, gets ready for his second lesson from Jones Driver Education School.

Even as national figures show that teenagers are waiting longer to get driver's licenses, local driving schools say they are flush with teens eager to hit the highways.

They're bucking the national trend.

Recent statistics from the Federal Highway Administration show that the number of 16-year-olds nationwide who hold licenses has declined to less than 30 percent since 1998 --- down from almost 44 percent a decade ago.

Officials blame price spikes for insurance and gasoline, plus a variety of strict new state laws that require driver training for keeping some teens from sliding behind the driver's seat.

Locally, those same factors appear to have made little difference, though. In fact, since both Georgia and South Carolina began graduated licensing programs, which require young drivers to have a set number of hours of supervised driving experience, several driving schools say their classes are packed.

That was the case during a recent Friday afternoon at Jones Driver Education School on Columbia Road as 15-year-old Monica Rose waited for her turn behind the wheel. The Alleluia Community School student said she needed her license because her brother was about to graduate and move off to college. Some of her friends, however, have chosen to wait, she said.

"They have people who would be able to drive them so they're like, 'What's the point?' " Monica said. "They don't absolutely need it right now."

It was the same for 16-year-old Aquinas High School student Kea Midy, who couldn't wait to start driving her mother's Honda Civic, but who also had a cousin holding off on getting her license.

"She really just didn't need it," Kea said. "Her parents are able to drive her where she needs to go."

At Brock's Driver Education School on Belair Road, owner Don A. Brock said that typically, he holds one class a month, or two in the summer when teens are out of school. Since the Georgia Legislature passed the so-called Joshua's Law -- which requires 16-year-olds to take a government-approved training course and have 46 cumulative hours of supervised day and night driving -- teens have been rushing to get into the courses so they can apply for their license, Mr. Brock said.

"We have not seen a decrease at all," he said. "Actually, right now we might have a little increase because everybody wants to get their license when they're 16, and the state law requires that they have a driver's education course."

Beth Parks, the communications director for the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, said that it's likely the graduated licensing program her state instituted in the late 1990s has kept some teens from taking to the roads but that that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"When you were 15, it was a rite of passage," Ms. Parks said. "Now you have to have done all these things, and I really believe that it makes it harder. And it should be harder."

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15-to 20-years-olds, according to 2004 figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, which are the latest available. Graduated programs have been shown to reduce the number of fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds by an average of 11 percent, according to a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"It benefits us but it also makes the road a little safer, too," Mr. Brock said. "With the graduated license, it gives them time to get some experience."

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

Licensed U.S. 16-year-olds:

1998: 1,670,181

2006 (latest year available): 1,299,465

CRASHES

12.9: Percentage of all drivers nationwide involved in fatal crashes in 2006 between ages 15 and 20

7,463: Total of 15-to 20-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2006

Source: Federal Highway Administration