January 13, 2012

Bill Nemitz: New lessons in driving long overdue

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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