Crash lifts awareness of teen driving safety
At the end of the first session in Dave Lawson’s teen driving class at In & Out Driving School in Glenwood Springs, he shows a video depicting the traumatic aftermath of a 1998 accident near Greeley that left four teenagers dead.
It’s the kind of emotional, graphic image many adult drivers today will remember from their own driver’s education classes in high school, or wherever they completed their driver training.
“It gets to the point in the video where the trooper is on the scene with the family members, and you can see the impact that has on the students in the classroom,” Lawson said.
That particular accident happened when the 16-year-old driver and his car full of friends ran a stop sign and collided with a tractor-trailer only hours after he had obtained his license. It prompted an important change in state law.
Since that time, Colorado’s Graduated Driver’s License (GDL) program has made it harder for a 16-year-old to get a driver’s license by requiring more instruction and a longer instructor’s permit period.
It also made it illegal for 16-year-olds to drive between midnight and 5 a.m. without a parent or other licensed adult (age 21 or older) in the car, except in emergencies.
Core to the law’s intent of making sure new drivers are not distracted, 16-year-old drivers are also not allowed to have other teen passengers in their car for the first six months unless an adult also is in the car.
For the ensuing six months, the new driver can have one other teen passenger in the car unsupervised, and only as a front seat passenger.
That first year for any new driver, but for teens in particular, is critical, Lawson said. His class emphasizes the importance of paying attention and not letting distractions interfere, whether it’s another person or an electronic device.
“These regulations are in place for a reason, and almost daily we go over those requirements — no cell phones, no music devices — all of those things that can take your attention off the road,” he said.
Awareness around teen driving safety was heightened after a Sept. 15 incident in Glenwood Springs in which a newly licensed driver lost control of her carload of teenage friends and slammed into a tree.
One of the back seat passengers, Glenwood Springs High School sophomore Victor Gamez, was seriously injured, but is reportedly making good progress in his recovery, according to GSHS Principal Paul Freeman.
The driver, who had been licensed for only four days, according to police, was cited for a felony-level vehicular assault charge in addition to violating the passenger law and reckless driving. She is due to appear this week in juvenile court to answer to the charges.
For Lawson, it’s an opportunity to review the options for comprehensive driving instruction and making sure teen drivers are getting the training they need in order to be competent behind the wheel as a licensed driver.
Lawson is adamant that classroom instruction is superior to the multitude of online driver training courses that are available and regulated by the Colorado Department of Revenue/Division of Motor Vehicles, same as his program.
The difference is that, for online instruction to work, there has to be strong parent supervision, not only during the 50 hours of required behind-the-wheel instruction, but during the online course itself, he said.
“I could offer online, but I don’t. In fact I refuse to,” Lawson said. “I don’t think the kids get the quality of training that way.
“For one, you’re not getting anything localized. The program could be based in Connecticut, and there’s nothing specific to Colorado,” he said. “And, you’re not getting that classroom atmosphere where you can ask questions and interact with the other students.”
Though he doesn’t make a point to use cases such as the recent accident in Glenwood Springs as an example, those sorts of things naturally come up in discussion in his classes.
“They will bring it up and have comments and questions about it,” Lawson said.
The same distractions the driver’s training warns against can also prevent a student who is taking an online course from completely paying attention to what they’re learning.
“I hear it all the time, where they will have their training on one screen and Netflix on another screen,” Lawson said.
A former law enforcement officer himself, Lawson spent 20 years with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office before joining up with In & Out four years ago and buying the company a year ago.
All but one of his instructors are former law enforcement officers. He currently has the only driving school based in Glenwood Springs, with offices and classrooms in Gypsum, Carbondale and Silt also.
School role limited
For Freeman and one other area high school principal, the recent accident can be a teaching moment and a chance to look at what high schools, though no longer offering driver’s education themselves, can do to emphasize teen driving safety.
Currently, health classes touch on the dangers of driving after drinking alcohol and other substance abuse, but not on general driving safety.
“I think there’s an opportunity to expand into some fairly obvious areas around that,” Freeman said.
“Learning about the dangers of drinking and driving is still really important,” he said. “But maybe we could have some discussions about speed limits, and is that just an annoyance or is it grounded in science?
“Or, is a seatbelt just an inconvenience, or do they really save lives?” Freeman asks in suggesting some topics that might be covered.
Something the high school could also do is reward students who complete a certain degree of driving instruction before getting their license with one of the limited on-campus parking spaces, regardless of a driver’s age. Currently, priority is given to juniors and seniors.
Drew Adams, principal at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale, acknowledged the emphasis in school health classes is more on substance abuse.
“We really push the onus onto the parents and other community mechanisms to take care of the safety education around driving,” Adams said. “At this point, I don’t anticipate that we’re going to change that.”
But it is an element of the lessons about drinking and driving that are part of the health curriculum. That includes the use of special impairment goggles so students can witness what it’s like to be impaired and how that’s dangerous.
“But the focus is more on alcohol and drug use,” Adams said. “That, for us, is a much higher risk.”
There may also be an opportunity to incorporate safety behind the wheel in an upcoming “social norming” exercise that Roaring Fork High has planned. Through that, students will talk about perceptions around things such as underage drinking, and the reality that the majority of students, based on recent surveys, still choose not to engage in that behavior.
“Our number one target with this is alcohol, because that is the number one teen killer,” Adams said. “Our objective is to make sure students are safe … and we want to reward and support the individuals who are making really smart choices.”
Lawson added that drinking and driving is also a “huge day” in his teen driving class. In addition to the alcohol impairment goggles that many of the school health classes now have, his course also makes use of special marijuana and fatigue goggles so that students can recognize different types of impairment.
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