It wasn’t exactly the hottest press release to come out of Gov. Paul LePage’s office in recent weeks. But it couldn’t have been more timely.
January, for those who still haven’t heard, is Young Driver Safety Awareness Month throughout Maine. And as LePage noted in his release Monday, the announcement comes on the heels of four deaths last weekend involving automobiles and people younger than 20 — one in Freeman Township, one in Biddeford and two in the horrific crash in West Paris that stopped the entire state in its tracks.
We’ve been down this road before, of course: Adolescent poor judgment leads to speed, alcohol, inattention or any combination thereof.
And as the flashing lights on the TV screen give way to families and communities drowning in their unspeakable grief, the rest of us are left to wonder, “How can this happen? And how can we stop it from knocking on our front door?”
Here are two suggestions — one a series of meetings, the other a movie. Together, they just might save a few lives.
The meetings, called Conversations with the Communities, are the brainchild of Secretary of State Charles Summers.
His goal, Summers said in an interview Thursday, is to take a long-overdue look at how we teach our kids to drive in the first place.
“The last time we upgraded the state’s driver’s ed curriculum was in 1996,” Summers said. “And it’s been since 1998 that we made any minor changes at all.”
Remember 1996? Summers was still working for Sen. Olympia Snowe and, as he recalls, the senator’s Portland office had one computer hooked up to that newfangled wonder called the Internet.
Today, every high school kid in Maine has access to a laptop, and its value as a teaching tool — driving simulations, anyone? — knows no bounds.
“Why wouldn’t we want to look at this and adopt some new best practices?” asked Summers.
Then there’s what Summers calls the “two-tiered system” by which young Mainers get their licenses these days.
One tier encompasses those who can afford to pay anywhere from $350 to $500 to attend one of Maine’s 227 driving schools and, upon passing the course, get a license at age 16.
The other tier, which Summers encountered on a trip last spring to a high school in Washington County, consists of kids who can’t afford the fee and thus wait until they’re 18 to get a license — with no driving education whatsoever.
When he asked a group of students at Narraguagus High School about driver’s ed, Summers recalled, “all of them said, ‘I’m not taking it. It’s too expensive.’“
Somehow, he added, that needs to change.
Summers’ Conversations with the Communities have already begun — 35 people showed up for a recent session in Lewiston, and a meeting in Kennebunk drew about two dozen.
Additional gatherings are planned next week in Bangor, Caribou and Calais, followed by one at 6 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles office on Presumpscot Street in Portland. (All of the sessions will be live-streamed at www.me.gov/sos.)
One goal, Summers said, is to solicit public input for changes in rules and laws governing young drivers that he’ll propose next month to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
He envisions, for example, online instruction in the basics (speed limits, sign recognition) to free up more time for behind-the-wheel learning at the local driving school.
Or perhaps Maine might double the number of hours, from 35 to 70, that a kid with a learner’s permit must spend with an older driver before qualifying for his or her license examination.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” noted Summers.
Beyond the rules and regulations, the meetings offer a chance simply to vent — at both sessions thus far, Summers said, parents of teenagers who were killed in car accidents in years past have been in the audience.
“And with these horrible accidents” in the past week, he noted, “I think people’s awareness is up right now.”
Which brings us to the movie.
Two years ago, Kennebunk Police Chief Robert MacKenzie awoke from a dream about taking a scenario — underage kids buying beer and heading for an unsupervised party — and playing out the many and varied things that could go wrong.
“I never remember my dreams,” MacKenzie said Thursday. “But as I’m laying there, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is a really good idea.’“
The result is “Point of No Return,” a 30-minute video that’s now finding its way to high schools and other organizations throughout Maine at just the time it can do the most good.
Produced by Video Creations, a production company in Kennebunk, the movie features actors who were students from Kennebunk High School. They open with the simple act of trying to buy beer. They then spin off into four possible endings.
In the first, they’re caught and arrested at the store.
In the second, they get the beer and go to the party at a house where the parents are nowhere to be found. Police arrive and, finding no adults, take the young female hostess away in handcuffs.
In the third, they leave the party, come upon a police sobriety roadblock and, once again, out come the handcuffs.
In the fourth and final ending, they leave the party in a pickup truck. The driver loses control of the speeding vehicle and runs into a tree — he’s not seriously hurt, but one of his passengers dies at the scene and two others sustain life-changing injuries.
You want reality TV? Go to the movie’s website (www.pointofnoreturn.tv) and watch the trailer.
Then call your local high school and request that it show the film. Much like Summers notified Maine’s driving schools that if they want to incorporate it into the curriculum, he’ll waive the rule that prohibits them from using instructional videos.
Police Chief MacKenzie will never forget the first screening at Kennebunk High School, just before the prom and graduation in 2010. Because everyone knew the kids in the film, he said, there was plenty of chortling and hooting when they first appeared on the screen.
“But within 10 minutes of the movie, the audience was completely quiet,” MacKenzie said. “And then when the movie ended, you could have heard a pin drop.”
Welcome to Young Driver Safety Awareness Month.
It’s a start.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: