Oregon's teen population getting into fewer crashes

by: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lakeridge High junior Hannah Harbour checks her blind spot during a drivers ed lesson earlier this week.Lakeridge High School senior Serina Crew pocketed her driver’s permit in February, but she’s not planning on getting her license any time soon.

“I don’t think my parents want me to,” said Crew, 17. “I want to, but also, at the same time, I want to have experience and be a safe driver.”

Lake Oswego’s teen drivers, including Crew, tap a local driver’s education class at the Community School to hone their motor vehicle skills.

“We’re going to teach you some good habits,” Driver’s ed instructor Gene Schmidt told his class Monday. “It’s up to you guys to apply that.”

Schmidt said a high percentage of teens are involved in crashes but not as many as there used to be. He’s put his finger on a major trend.

Drivers who were 16 to 19 in 1999 were involved in about 31 percent of fatal or injury-causing crashes. By 2004, such teen-involved crashes dropped to about 27 percent.

The percent of drivers, ages 15 to 20, in any crash at all fell from 21 percent of 44,162 crashes in 2007 to 16.6 percent of 49,798 crashes last year, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Schmidt attributed the trend to the graduated driver license law that the state Legislature established in 2000 when it was revising 1989 teen licensing REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Drivers ed teacher Chuck Smith gives Lakeridge High School senior Serina Crew some pointers.

Under the graduated driver license law, in the first sixth months after a teen receives a provisional driver’s license, he or she cannot have a passenger younger than 20. In the second six months, the limit is no more than three passengers younger than 20. Exceptions to these restrictions include immediate family members.

Within the first year, a teen cannot drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless it: is a work commute for which there’s no other transportation or has to do with employment and is between home and a school event. Another exception is if the teen is accompanied by a licensed driver who is at least 25.

When local teens are allowed on the road Chuck Smith shows them how to be safe.

For 46 years, Smith has been one of the instructors who handles the behind-the-wheel portion of driver’s education through the Community School, showing local high schoolers how to navigate a motor vehicle in-town, on two-lane highways and on the freeway.

“I do it because I enjoy working with the kids — it keeps you young,” Smith said.

But, he doesn’t go easy on them.

Before Crew and Lakeridge High junior Hannah Harbour climbed into a four-door Ford Fusion SE on Tuesday for their first lesson with Smith, he examined each of their permits closely.

“You’re not smiling,” he said, teasing Crew. “What was the matter? Was it a bad day.”

“I was tired,” she said, smiling slightly. “I didn’t think I was going to pass.”

He also required that the teens put their books and cell phones in the trunk.

“My rule ... I had a couple of guys who were in the backseat texting, so they ruined it for everyone,” Smith explained.

He also makes sure to keep his students engaged: “Feel free to ask questions. Don’t be a hands-sitter: sitting on your hands.”

Crew and Harbour said their parents had asked them to take the driver’s ed class, which includes 30 hours of class time, six hours of behind-the-wheel time and six hours of observation. The students’ moms have been teaching both of them how to operate a car, so neither was completely green when they met Smith.

“My driving’s gotten a lot better, and it improves every day,” Harbour said.

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