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Minnesota teens rush to driver’s schools before stricter rules take effect

By Tim Harlow/Minneapolis Star Tribune

Minnesota teenagers are encountering gridlock as they rush to finish behind-the-wheel training before new statewide driver’s license rules requiring more practice time take effect Jan. 1.

Some driving schools are so jammed with appointments that instructors are working seven days a week.

Students who don’t complete training by Dec. 31 will have to follow new state rules that increase the time they must practice driving with a licensed adult by 10-20 hours. The adult must sign documents saying that the practice was completed.

“There’s definitely a sense of urgency,” said Keelii McCarty-Addy, the driver’s ed program coordinator for St. Paul Public Schools Community Education.

Phones in her office have been ringing incessantly with calls from students trying to schedule appointments with the program’s 10 instructors, and vehicles have been added to handle demand, she said.

The new requirements are an attempt to reduce fatal car crashes, the leading cause of death for teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last year in Minnesota, there were 12,384 crashes in which a teen 15-19 years old was driving. Thirty-eight people died and 8,784 were injured in those accidents, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

The new rules will affect thousands of Minnesota teens. Last year more than 58,000 16- and 17-year-olds completed classroom instruction and were eligible to obtain a permit, according to the state.

For now, teens can take their road test six months after completing behind-the-wheel training with a certified instructor and 30 hours of supervised driving with a licensed adult. The adult simply needs to give the examiner their word.

On Jan. 1, the number of practice hours with a licensed adult rises from 30 to 40, and teens will have to submit a written log that documents the dates, number of minutes that were driven and skills that were practiced.

The adult who supervised most of the teen’s practice hours must sign the driving log. Parents also must attend a 90-minute public safety awareness class. If they don’t, the teen must complete an additional 10 hours of supervised driving, for a total of 50.

“That is why I was rushing to get it done,” said St. Paul Highland Park High School sophomore Soua Xiong, who finished his last behind-the-wheel lesson right before Thanksgiving. “That would be adding too much.”

The crush hit St. Paul after the district notified parents and guardians of nearly 1,000 students in its drivers education program of the change.

Instructor John Ertz has been giving road lessons on weekdays after school and weeknights, then working eight hours on Saturdays. His Sundays are booked, too.

Ertz says he is optimistic that parents won’t see the new requirements as a burden, but as a way to take an active role in their teen’s instruction.

“We can’t do it all in six hours,” said Ertz. “The first year of driving is critical in terms of accidents.”

Chris Claeson, manager of AAA Minneapolis driving school, said AAA has long recommended that new drivers get 100 hours of supervised driving. For the past year, AAA has required parents to attend a safety class. The log won’t be new either, she said. “It’s been a part of the culture,” she said.

Parent Heidi Lindstrom of Burnsville, Minn., is in favor of the new law, which will affect her 15-year-old son, Clay.

“I think more experience is great; I have no problem filling out the log,” she said. “More driving experience with an adult is great. You can never have enough.”

Geoff Warner of St. Paul suspects the change will have few benefits. Parents can still fudge the log, he said, and “the ones who don’t need it (the extra driving practice) will do it and those who need it won’t.”

Pete Hosmer, owner of A+ Driving School, served on the task force that approved the new law.

“Our goal is to make safe drivers. This is government trying to protect citizens,” he said.

It’s not clear if the new law will achieve its goal, said John Palmer, a professor at St. Cloud State University who has studied teen driving for four decades.

He points to the unexpected impact of laws that phase in driver’s privileges, restrict the number of passengers teen drivers can have in the car and limit night driving. Those laws have pushed more teens to delay getting their licenses until age 18, when they are beyond the restrictions, he said.

That’s dangerous, according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. It found that teens who skip driver’s education have more crashes and traffic-related convictions than those who receive formal training.

“What we see in hindsight is that when they wait until they are 18, they are more heavily involved in crashes than they would have been,” Palmer said.

Still, Palmer approves of the new requirements.

“We don’t know what the magic number is, 40 or 50 or 100 (hours), but we know that if parents engage and give direction, supervised driving works,” he said.

Minnesota will become the fourth state to require parents to attend a safety awareness class. The 90-minute sessions use curriculum developed by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.

 “This is not something just dreamed up over the past two weeks,” McCarty-Addy said. “It encourages parents to be a part of it and make students successful drivers.”

Minnesota students who complete their behind-the-wheel training by Jan. 1 will not find an express lane to getting their licenses.

Road testing stations are backlogged, too. It’s taking about eight weeks to get an appointment in the metro area, and anywhere from a few days to a few weeks in the rest of the state, said Doug Neville, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.

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