Taking the car keys away from a teenage driver is a common parental ploy to teach youngsters a lesson. Unfortunately, it is now a frequent budget-balancing technique that can be just as punitive to high-school-age motorists.
For three years, the Hernando County School District considered eliminating high school driver's education classes and this year the board finally acquiesced. It agreed to offer driver's training only as an after-hours, fee-based course with no credit toward graduation. That replaced the in-school half-credit class students could take as an elective.
It is far from ideal, but better than the alternative of providing no class at all. It is a choice being made around Florida as schools cope with reduced state funding and expiring federal stimulus dollars. Over a two-year span, enrollment in district-offered driver's education classes fell 30 percent across the state.
That is a lot of kids driving without formal training and it is a population prone to traffic mishaps. Across Florida, the crash rate for 18-year-old drivers is more than four times higher than that of octogenarians, the group unfairly stereotyped as having poor driving skills. In 2010, teenage drivers accounted for nearly 27,000 crashes in Florida that left 144 teens dead and 18,000 injured.
The number of accidents for all age groups in Hernando last year totaled nearly 1,400, resulting in 28 fatalities and more than 1,500 injuries. The numbers are a significant decline from five years ago, a trend widely tied to fewer people driving because of the poor economy, and the state's heavy emphasis on national campaigns that stress seat-belt use (Click It or Ticket) and targeting impaired drivers (Over the Limit Under Arrest).
The key to those campaigns is the heavy advertising aimed at educating motorists on the consequences of their actions. It is the same motivation for driver's education classes that teach the basics of vehicle operation and the rules of the road to neophyte drivers.
Parents recognize the benefit. Initial demand for the after-hours class at Nature Coast Technical High School was so slow, the district considering killing the course entirely, but there is now a waiting list of students. The class costs $100 and is open to students 19 and younger.
It is a worthwhile investment of which parents should take advantage even if it is less convenient than the traditional in-school classes. Teaching the next generation of drivers to responsibly handle a vehicle helps to ensure their safety and also that of other motorists. It should be the priority no matter when or where the classes are held.