Students in Spaulding High School's driver's ed program are getting behind the wheel for the first time this week. Most are eager to get their learner's permit once they turn 15. But according to a recent study, these eager new drivers are not the norm.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that less than half-- or about 44 percent of teens-- get a driver's license within a year of becoming eligible. And just over half-- 54 percent-- have a license by their 18th birthday.
Experts say a downward trend in those numbers raises concerns that many teens are missing the point of the graduated driver's license programs.
"They're missing basically how to drive safely. How if they get themselves into a situation, how can I extricate myself from this safely," said Bill Scott, a driving instructor at Spaulding High School.
The Vermont GDL law went into effect in 2000. It requires teens 15-18 to learn to drive in stages, starting with driver's ed classes. Young drivers are required to log 40 hours of practice behind the wheel, including at least 10 hours of night driving. And in the beginning, they can't drive friends and family without a parent or guardian.
By all measures, state officials say the program has been a success in reducing teen accidents and fatalities.
"Anecdotally we hear that across the country that it has produced a safer driver. Has it solved all the issues? Absolutely not, but a younger person starting in a car without any other-- trying to minimize the distractions makes for a safer experience," said Robert Ide, the commissioner of the Vt. Department of Motor Vehicles.
The DMV does not track whether more Vermont teens are indeed putting off driving. Ide says the overall trend is fewer young people as a whole. He says for some focused on academics, fitting driver's ed in can be a challenge. And the high cost of maintaining a car is also a factor.
"Is it safer at 18 or safer at 16? I think we can debate that question for a long time, but the experience is what is necessary and we certainly encourage people that want to drive to do it as early as they can, have the experience of going through the graduated type of driver's license and becoming responsible drivers for life," Ide said.
AAA says policymakers should revisit whether existing GDL programs-- nearly all of which end when a driver turns 18-- should be changed to improve safety for novice drivers that opt out.
Another incentive to learn early-- most insurance companies charge higher rates for those 18-25 who don't take an approved drivers course.
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