It’s every parents’ worst nightmare — getting a phone call from local authorities informing them of a car accident that killed their child. But that nightmare was a reality for the parents of 168 young Georgia drivers who died in motor vehicle crashes in 2001, according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.
And in September of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill establishing the third week of October as National Teen Driver Safety Week. Oct. 15-20 marks the first national teen driver safety week.
According to the traffic safety administration, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. In addition, 63 percent of 16- to 20-year-old drivers and passengers killed or seriously injured in car crashes in 2001 were not wearing seat belts, according to the traffic safety administration.
"They’re all preventable collisions is the thing," said David Castaldini, driver education and defensive driving instructor at Gainesville State College.
Castaldini teaches a driver education class that satisfies a part of Joshua’s Law. The law requires all 16-year-olds applying for a Class D driver’s license in Georgia to complete an approved 30-hour driver education course and a total of 40 hours of supervised driving with a parent or guardian’s sworn verification that these requirements have been met. Six hours of the required 40 hours of supervised driving must be at night.
Any Georgia student who does not complete an approved driver education course must wait until age 17 to be eligible to receive a Class D driver’s license. Even then, they are still required to complete the 40 hours of supervised driving verified by a parent in writing.
A student most hold a learner’s permit for at least one year and one day before they are eligible to receive a Class D license. Learner’s permits can be obtained at 15 years of age.
Teenagers interested in obtaining their intermediate, or Class D license, at 16 have several options for fulfilling the requirements imposed under Joshua’s Law. Private classes start at about $250, according to the Georgia Department of Driver Services, but some public schools such as Gainesville High School have online virtual classroom courses that cost $65. Parents as well as private instructors can help students complete their hours behind the wheel.
Not only does Castaldini spend time in the classroom and the car teaching students the rules of the road, but he also tries to teach them the seriousness of driving.
"We just make them realize that they’re moving into adulthood. This is the most dangerous thing they’re going to do in their life," he said.
Castaldini said that the most effective part of the course is when he invites guest speakers who have survived crashes to inform students of the negative consequences of driving.
"They’re talking to kids with brain damage saying don’t drink and drive," he said. "They seem to relate better to a 17- or 18-year-old kid that went through it."
Castaldini said that most students in his class seem to understand that he’s trying to save their lives.
Denice Porras, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Gainesville High School, is enrolled in the school’s online driver education class and said that she has driven a car with her grandmother.
"It was a little bit scary," she said. "When you get behind the wheel your life is in your hands. You have to be careful." Porras, like many students in Jerry Davis’ driver education class, said that the best part of obtaining a driver’s license is the freedom that comes with it.
"I think it will be a lot better for us and take a lot of stress off my parents when I can take myself home from football practice," said 10th-grader and 15-year-old Gainesville High School driver education student Michael Waters.
But parents who are often the supervisors of young drivers might feel a little wary about getting into the car with unexperienced drivers.
"My parents were a little nervous," Waters said. "My dad kept putting his hands up and stuff."
Davis, who has been teaching driver education classes at local public high schools for 20 years, said the main message is that students have to pay attention and evaluate the circumstances to be good drivers. He said that students can be easily distracted by cell phones, text messages and other passengers in the car.
Davis said that he particularly likes the law limiting the number of students in a car because more kids often means more horseplay, leading to distractions and wrecks. He also said that the GPS units available for parents to purchase might be a good tool in tracking students’ locations and speeds.
"But I think the kids could find their way around it," he said. "The parents will know where the family car is at least."
Davis said that he sees many teenagers go through a bulletproof phase where they think they’re invincible. He said that he tries to teach students to pay attention while driving or the consequences can be deadly.
"It’s a learning experience," he said. "Driving is not a video game. Once we crash, we cannot reset the game."