A license to drive

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— Sixteen-year-old Katie Liefer's new sense of freedom has been made possible by a plastic identification card issued by the state and the keys to a sleek Volkswagen bug.

"I can do whatever I want," said Liefer, who recently got her driver's license. "I don't have to rely on my parents anymore."

Liefer is one of many youths in the community who has reached that magic age where getting behind the wheel is a rite of passage.

Liefer said she is comfortable behind the wheel of her silver 2000 Volkswagen because of a law change in 1999 that required her to log 50 hours prior to getting her license.

"Having to drive 50 hours made a big difference," Liefer said. "My parents also helped me understand all the safety precautions of driving."

All but three states in the country have instituted stricter requirements for youths to get a driver's license.

Colorado is one of the states to implement stricter requirements after a law change in 1999. Prior to 1999, a teen had to pass written and driving tests to get a license.

States are implementing tougher laws because of accident and fatality rates among teens across the country.

Statistics show 16-year-olds are three times more likely to have an accident than 18- or 19-year-olds and eight times as likely as 25-year-olds.

A young driver is involved in a fatal crash every 62 minutes. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. In 2000, 3,594 drivers in that age group were killed in crashes.

To get teen drivers maximum experience behind the wheel, the state allows anyone who has reached the age of 15 to get an instruction permit if enrolled in a driver education class.

For the past 10 years, Jerry Buelter has provided driver education instruction to Steamboat Springs High School students.

Buelter, who has changed his curriculum to follow state standards, said the law change was needed.

"It is the best law the state of Colorado has come up with," Buelter said. "Prior to the change, a teen could pass the driving test with a minimal amount of hours behind the wheel."

Students who enroll in Buelter's course have to achieve 30 hours of classroom instruction and log six hours of driving. Buelter spends his summers driving with students so they meet the six-hour requirement.

Since the law changed, Buelter is seeing more students take the course, which has always been well attended. Every year, 60 to 100 students take the course.

In the past two years, Buelter has noticed student driving has improved because of the 50-hour requirement.

"Their skills are much better," he said. "The driving by students is much better than when I first started."

Buelter, who is also the assistant principal at Steamboat Springs Middle School, enjoys teaching teens how to become good, responsible drivers.

"People think I am nuts for doing it," he said.

Buelter said he has an advantage over parents because of the vehicle the district uses to teach the students a maroon 1994 Oldsmobile.

"The students refer to it as a boat," he said. "But the car has a brake on my side that gives you a lot of confidence. I have a lot of comfort knowing I can stop the car."

Throughout his career of teaching the course, Buelter has had his share of nervous moments.

"When I go to an amusement park now, those rides don't scare me anymore," he said. "For most of the students, it is their first time behind the wheel. A lot of them are really nervous. You can sense it."

To relieve the stress of the local Department of Motor Vehicles office, Buelter is certified to give the written and driving tests.

"Because the students are putting in 50 hours of driving, they expect to do well," he said. "Most are more concerned with what type of car they are going to get."

Denise Carhartt, who is the manager of the local motor vehicle office, said she has also noticed driving ability among teens is good here.

"I have seen an improvement," said Carhartt, who has been in the Steamboat office for three years. "They are really responsible and take their driving seriously."

Buelter estimates he has taken drives with about a thousand students in Steamboat Springs during his years of teaching the course.

Soon he will have the task of teaching his oldest son, 14-year-old Wayne, how to drive.

"It will be interesting," he said. "But I think it will be sort of fun."

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