Students see more hours per mile

Law requires learners to have more experience before getting a license

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— Last weekend Rebecca Herman was driving home from Denver, heading for the Steamboat Springs post office on the corner of Third Street and Lincoln Avenue.

It was a routine drive for the permit-holding 15-year-old. Her mother was in the passenger seat.

Herman has been told she needs to take her turns a bit more carefully, but she didn't spend too much time pondering those reminders.

When she turned the corner, instead of braking or slowing down, Herman continued to accelerate and came within an inch from hitting a Jeep Cherokee.

"It woke me up. Now I see why I need to brake during turns," Herman said. "My mom was so scared and was screaming, 'Slow down!' Maybe I should practice more."

For 15-year-old students across the nation, getting a driver's license represents a coming of age.

Suddenly there is a sense of freedom as well as a risk that could turn deadly.

Just hours after a 16-year-old Greeley boy obtained his driver's license in 1998, he and three friends were killed in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer after running through a stop sign.

In the summer of 1999, only months after a fatal accident, Colorado changed its law requiring students to acquire 50 hours of driving practice with a parent, guardian or driving education instructor 10 of which are nighttime hours.

Colorado State Trooper Brad Keadle said he doesn't think the law has been in effect long enough to see any positive or negative results.

"I do know that if you take a 16-year-old kid down to get his driver's license, he'll spend the next couple months practicing," Keadle said. "This is a good way for them to get practice beforehand. That is, if parents are being honest."

Keadle said society is going to have people that lie for their children, but that really won't do any good.

Herman said she's about half-way to her required 50 hours and will complete her 10 nighttime hours toward the end.

"The hours are a little too high I think. It's hard to get 50 hours in this town. Maybe they should make it 30 hours," Herman said.

Although Herman has taken a trip to Denver and back, she said the longest she has been behind the wheel for one stretch has been 3 1/2 hours.

"I tend to go a little too fast. That might cause a little problem on the test," Herman said bluntly. "The speeding I can handle but I do have a problem taking turns."

Herman said the extra hours of practice driving before getting a license works in two ways.

While the hours might be high for a small town such as Steamboat Springs, she's glad the state is monitoring how well students are doing.

After completing the 30 hours of classroom time during the spring, Herman now is completing her driving hours during the summer. She said she hopes it takes only three more months to get her license.

Herman said she hopes to take the test with driving education instructor Jerry Buelter.

However, with Buelter's new position as assistant principal at the middle school, he said it will be difficult to jump from school to school.

Buelter teaches an independent driving education course in the fall only and both an independent study and a classroom-taught course in the spring.

Although not part of the curriculum, driving education runs through the Steamboat Springs High School. Tuition is $100.

Buelter said he sees about 60 to 100 students in his classes a year and is glad the students and the state have taken the driving issue more seriously.

"It seems like they're more aware (and driving more) makes it easier for them," Buelter said of the students' perspectives. "I hear them out in the parking lot saying, 'Sorry, I can only take four.'"

Along with the 50 hours of driving, the law also requires students to fill out a log sheet with a parent's or a guardian's signature. Students 17 and younger, with a permit or a license, are restricted to only one front-seat passenger and as many passengers in the back seat as there are seat belts.

For students under 17, driving between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. are prohibited, even if a student has a license, unless a parent or guardian is in the car.

Keadle said 30 percent of fatal car crashes involving teen-agers in the United States happen between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Also, an average of two teen-agers every week die in car crashes in Colorado.

"This is why I think the new laws are best. And I'm not usually for new laws," Buelter said. "This helps get kids getting behind the wheel. We've been passing people off as good drivers."

Buelter also has been certified to administer driving tests for 16-year-old students. He has designated two different routes in Steamboat but said he is fairly conservative in handing out passing grades.

"I don't test kids until they're pretty far along," Buelter said of the 13 different graded tasks students have to conquer before passing. "Driving is a privilege, not a right."

Driving education is not only a way for students to become better drivers and gain more experience about cars and their parts, it also is a way to decrease a 16-year-old's insurance rates.

Buelter remembered one student in particular.

"This guy was a horrible driver. How do I say this better, he was the one that needed the most assistance. No, he was just a horrible driver, but he already had his license," Buelter said.

Buelter said he likes to take students out on the first or second time driving and get them up to 60 to 65 mph.

"Kids are really fearful of town driving because it creates volume," Buelter said. When students understand what 60 miles an hour feels like, 25 miles an hour doesn't seem so bad."

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