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Dealer puts students on the road

The tales about teen-age drivers are scary enough to make most car dealers hide their car keys. About 10 years ago, a Northeast High School student panicked while practicing driving in reverse and backed through a fence and into an occupied picnic table.

"We almost wiped out 10 students," said Don Palmer, who taught driver education for 24 years before becoming an assistant principal at Countryside High School.

Then there was the Northeast senior who zoomed around a corner at the school's driving range, jumped the curb and crashed through a fence into a 6-foot deep ditch, Palmer said. The driver was not hurt, thanks to a seat belt, but the car sustained $5,000 in damage.

Despite war stories from the driver education front, managers at Scott Buick, 9400 U.S. 19 N, say they have confidence in young drivers. So much confidence that the dealership has been lending cars to the Pinellas County School System for use in Driver Education courses for the past three years.

Miraculously, there have been no major mishaps during this time.

"I think it's good that they learn to drive on good quality cars," said Scott Buick general manager Al Leo of the 70 Buick Skylarks, Centuries and LeSabers lent to Pinellas County high schools this year.

The school system pays $4 a day for each car it borrows for the driver education program for a total cost of $102,200 per year. The county also picks up the cost of repairing damaged cars, Jones said, with a yearly maintenance and repair budget of about $15,000, or $214.28 a car.

Every three months, the cars are returned to the dealership and replaced with new ones. Leo said Scott Buick keeps the driver education sticker on the cars until they are sold.

The Pinellas County School Board is awarding Scott Buick with a plaque this morning in thanks for the dealership's commitment to the driver education program. In the past, officials were forced to beg dealers for use of their cars, borrowing from three or more dealerships each year, said George Jones, Pinellas County driver education director.

Some school officials said they get a little nervous when they think of the novice drivers tooling around in new automobiles.

"You hesitate when you give a kid an $18,000 to $22,000 car to drive," Jones said. "But so far, we have been extremely lucky."

Jones said no student has caused a major accident since he became director in 1982. The two most serious incidents involved a driver education teacher who was hit on the way to work, and a rear-end collision that was the fault of the other driver.

"The little ones that are the students' fault are the dings and dents," Jones said. Frequently, a student driver will scuff a tire or scrape a pole when turning a corner too sharply, he said. Palmer remembers students hitting many stop signs, benches and even a garbage bin during his years as a driving instructor.

In the three years he has been lending cars to schools, Leo said he hasn't had many problems "with the exception of a couple of scrapes here and there."

Part of Leo's peace of mind might be due to the extra set of brakes in the driver education cars. Before a student plows into a truck, the instructor riding shotgun can slam on the brakes by using a pedal on the passenger's side.