BLOUNTVILLE — Fewer students taking driver's education in high school has resulted in an increase in teenagers in car accidents and traffic convictions nationwide, according to a recently released AAA study.
In the region, driver's education is a requirement in Virginia for those younger than 19 to get a license, but not across state line in Tennessee, where some local systems offer no driver's ed or limit it to classroom-only instruction.
"Driver's education is associated with a lower incidence of both crashes and convictions — reducing crashes by 4.3 percent and convictions by nearly 40 percent," according to a Sept. 9 news release from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
It said teenagers who completed driver's education scored higher on the driving exam and demonstrated "modest increases in knowledge" over peers who took no formal training."
"Overall, the findings suggest that driver's education can make a difference, but there is still much room for improvement in most existing programs," said Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive officer of the AAA foundation. "This underscores the need for states to adopt the NHTSA-supported Standards that are designed to enhance the scope and quality of driver's education."
In Tennessee, driver's ed is not required, and budget constraints led the Sullivan County Board of Education a few years ago to cease the driver's ed program in its four high schools.
"We don't do anything at all," Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said Wednesday of behind-the-wheel driver's education, saying that the 2014-15 school year is the second year the system has not offered the program.
Lib Sells, director of human resources with the school system, said that students do get some driver's education classroom time during Wellness 2 classes as sophomores, which is usually the time they are getting learner's permits.
Yennie said he didn't know what was filling the hands-on driver's ed void but that a defensive driving/accident avoidance driving school held at Bristol Motor Speedway each year likely is helping. With limited resources and partial state reimbursement for driver's ed, Yennie said the school board made the decision to end driver's ed, although board members said it was a good program.
Likewise, Hawkins County offers classroom driver's ed "safety" training as part of a safety class that also includes hunting and boating safety, said Beth Holt, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for that system.
She said this marks the third year Volunteer High has had no behind-the-wheel training and the fourth year Cherokee High has not had it.
In Washington County, Director of Secondary Education Bill Flanary said the classroom component is offered at both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone high schools but only Crockett offers the six-hour behind-the-wheel course.
The Wellness 2 course in which classroom driver's ed is included is mandatory except for students in athletics, band, ROTC or cheerleading.
Johnson City's Science Hill High School offers no classroom driver's education whatsoever, said Janie Snyder, director of secondary and student services.
However, Snyder said the system in the spring and summer offers a behind-the-wheel driving class outside of school hours for no credit under what was last year a $175 charge.
A certified driving instructor, a school system employee under personal contract, offers the class, but Snyder said it had a limited number of slots since students were assigned driving in pairs.
In Kingsport, the school system still offers driver's education behind the wheel, but Dobyns-Bennett High School Principal Chris Hampton recently sent parents a letter encouraging them to consider the Accident Avoidance Workshops at BMS for their high school students.
Assistant Principal Brian Tate via email said driver's education "is a built-in two-week rotation as part of Wellness 2. Students get time in the classroom with driving rules, regulations, and verbal instruction," Tate said. "Additionally, students are given time in simulators and they get time in the car on our range and with the teacher on the road."
However, he also said D-B does not issue any certificates in relation to driver's education since it is a "two-week rotation teaching fundamentals of operating a vehicle not a full driver's education course."
He said 571 students are enrolled in Wellness 2 throughout the year, "which would mean that amount would get exposure to driver's education" at D-B this year.
"I have only received positive feedback from parents and students who have participated in previous sessions of this program," Hampton wrote. "The workshops are conducted by an outside agency that is not affiliated with Dobyns-Bennett or Kingsport City Schools. My endorsement comes as support for the safety of all of our students."
The AAA-approved driving schools this year had three-hour classroom instruction Sept. 11 with five-hour driving sessions Sept. 13 or 14. Another session is coming in the classroom Oct. 23, with driving sessions Oct. 25 and 26.
The price is $249 for a student with a permit or license and one parent or $289 for such a student and both parents. All student and parent participants are eligible for a driving certificate that in some cases will lower vehicle insurance rates.
Sponsors included BMS (which information on the program indicates supports the program and brought the price down from $359 per parent-student team to $249), Volkswagen of Chattanooga, Wellmont Health System, News5 WCYB, the Kingsport Times-News, the Kingsport Area Safety Council and Eastman Chemical Co.
For information or to register for the October sessions, call (770) 262-7009 or go to www.AccidentAvoidanceWorkshops.org.
The AAA study assessed examples of U.S. and Canadian driver's education programs evaluation methods including surveys, driver's licensing tests, driver simulators and the review of driving records.
AAA and the AAA Foundation have developed comprehensive resources including TeenDriving.AAA.com, a state-specific website to help parents navigate the learning-to-drive process; DriversZed, an interactive tool designed to teach teens how to react in various driving scenarios; and the StartSmart Online Parent Session, a two-hour webinar that explains the licensing process and parents' role, and demonstrates how to maximize the practice driving that parents/guardians are required to do with their teen.