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Special Report--

Too young to drive?

May 18, 2006

Albany -- There is talk of raising Georgia's driving age to 17 or 18.

Why? Because so many teenage drivers are killing themselves-- and others. Six thousand teen fatalities in the United States last year. The biggest threat to their well-being seems to be distracted driving. So what can we do to protect them from themselves?

Teens behind the wheel give new meaning to multi-tasking. Phones, CD players, and friends, distract young drivers-- who can least afford it.

Stephanie Phillips has, not one, but two teenage girls. 16-year old Amore is already driving. and 15-year old Charity is just beginning. Stephanie worries about driving distractions. "They're young and they're carefree, and nothing can happen, they think."

They think, but they're wrong. "The accident rate has been basically off the scale." Bill Hammack is the continuing education director at Albany Tech and is in charge of the driver's education program. "They lead the pack when it comes to, statistically, more of them get injured and killed than any other category of people that drive in the United States."

Every day, he and his instructors try to convince teens the importance of focusing on their driving. "Driving is a full-time endeavor, not something that you can pay attention to part of the time. You've got to be on top of the game all the time when you're driving."

In Albany Tech's driver's ed classes, students spend 40 hours learning the rules of driving.  "Most of them, believe it or not, know how to drive. The big challenge is getting them to pay attention to what they're doing when they're driving," says Hammack.

What they're doing when they're driving, he says, is the problem. "Cell phones, I-Pods, changing CDs in their dash player, all those things are big distractions."

Big distractions that worry Stephanie Phillips. "The thing is not getting so caught up in the fun activities going on in the car with your friends, you know, the radio going, the dancing.

So, like many other parents, she has rules. "Seat belts are a must for every person in the car. No speeding. Be off your cell phone, which I think is probably one of the hardest to abide by."

And she's right. "With the cell phone issue, I mean, I answer my cell phone because it rings, and my cell phone is, like, my life," said Amore'.

"Cell phones are right at the top of the list. Or, right now, it's called distracted driving," said Hammack. Distracted driving that we, as parents, are partly responsible for. "I think we have failed. We have not built that pay attention factor into driving because we've been guilty of it ourselves."

So what can be done to make teen drivers safer? "Senate Bill 226 states all 16 year olds must have completed driver's ed before they can be licensed in the state of Georgia," said Hammack.

Beginning January 1st, driver's ed classes will be mandatory to get a Georgia license. "If they don't understand the hazards and how to recognize them, they're never going to be in the position to minimize those hazards or avoid them altogether," he said.

Avoiding hazards is something Amore Brock knows about. "You gotta be aware of that and be aware of your surroundings because anything can happen even if you're doing everything right."

And everything right includes buckling up. "It's just standard, you know. It's seatbelt on and you know if the person beside me doesn't have it on I make sure they have it on," says Charity.

Right now, there are more than 4,000 14 to 16 year olds in Dougherty and Lee Counties alone. They'll soon be on the roads, driving. That affects us all. That's why it's up to us all to help them. "Everyone that comes in contact with these youngsters has got to make them see somehow that the hazards are there and those hazards are 'gonna bite you if you don't accept responsibility as an adult driver," says Hammack.

Adult driving responsibilities that may one day be reserved for adults. "I can see the driver's age, if things don't get better soon, maybe going to 17 or 18 years of age before they're even allowed to drive."

If that happens, Georgia will become the strictest state in the nation for teen driver's licenses. A law change that won't affect the Brock girls, but it could well be the key to saving young drivers' lives.

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