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Teen drivers less safe now than decade ago

AAA survey of instructors says teens don't practice enough and are too easily distracted by their cellphones

Teen drivers may be exhibiting more unsafe driving behavior than their counterparts did just a decade ago because they are more distracted and practice less, instructors say in a new AAA survey.

In the timely survey, experts say there are simply too many distractions for teens nowadays. AAA — a national not-for-profit organization that offers roadside assistance and travel and insurance services — released the results in advance of Teen Driving Week, which runs Oct. 16-22.

AAA received 142 responses from driving instructors in 26 states and one Canadian province in September, and locals say they aren’t surprised by the results.

“I think it’s very true, because teens are definitely more distracted,” says Clare Korte, a driver’s education student and Lakeridge High School sophomore. “They have their phones. They have Snapchat. They have texting.”

Fifty-five percent of survey respondents say teens have less of an interest in driving and that teen drivers are not as good behind the wheel as they used to be. Young drivers need more practice and fewer distractions, the instructors note.

Driving instructors also say that teens’ top mistakes include poor visual scanning of roadways, speeding and an overall pattern of inattentive driving behavior, according to the survey by AAA.

Jo Barendse, Gene Schmidt and Chuck Smith, instructors for the Driver’s Education course offered through Lake Oswego School District’s Community School, say they agree. About 14 percent of the instructors in the survey say inadequate visual scanning includes tunnel vision and not anticipating risks, something Barendse says sounds pretty typical.

“That’s very true,” says Barendse, who is also a technology and behind-the-wheel driver’s education teacher for the Tigard-Tualatin School District. “I talk to the kids all the time: You’ve got to move your eyes.”

Smith says teens focus primarily on the road and “don’t see the peripheral area around them at all.” Another problem is speed, he notes, and about 11 percent of survey respondents pointed to that as a common mistake.

“They don’t have the command of how long it takes them to stop or the feel of the car, how fast they’re going,” says Smith, a behind-the wheel instructor for more than 40 years.

In the survey, 6 percent of respondents say teens don’t practice driving enough; 8 percent of instructors say teens exhibit poor braking technique and just don’t know when to hit the pedal on the left; and 8 percent of experts say teens are overconfident and not taking driving seriously.

Korte says many young people don’t think about it enough when they settle into the driver’s seat.

“I don’t think people understand that they’re driving a giant piece of machinery that could kill someone,” she says.

According to the survey, the next most-common mistake made by teen drivers is inattention; 10 percent of instructors in the survey list “not paying attention” or not focusing, “multi-tasking,” “cellphones” and “looking at the speedometer too long” as the main issues.

Smith says simply having someone talking to a student can be enough of a distraction to affect a young driver, but he requires that cellphones be put in the trunk during lessons. If he gets a call on his phone, he says, he won’t answer it to

ensure his students stay focused.

He wants to set a good example and underscore the importance of the lessons, he says.

That’s incredibly important to do, according to the AAA survey, especially for parents. Sixty-five percent of the driver education instructors who were surveyed say parents are worse at teaching their teen to drive because they don’t set a good example, and they don’t invest enough time offering advice or practice.

“You do what your parents do,” says Schmidt, who has taught the classroom portion of driver’s ed since 2005.

That’s true for Korte, who says her mom has had a profound impact on her because she swore off ever using a cellphone in her car.

“She definitely set a great example for me,” Korte says.

The AAA survey offers other solutions. Young people can practice driving (29 percent of instructors said this); drive defensively, a series of skills involving being alert and planning ahead (19 percent); avoid distractions (17 percent); and know that driving is a privilege and responsibility (11 percent), according to the AAA


Teens aren’t the only ones who have a problem with distractions, of course. According to the National Safety Council, the No. 1 cause of unintentional deaths in the United States is car crashes, which kill about 100 people per day — and about 26 percent of all car crashes involve the use of cellphones, including those operated with hands-free devices.

“Everybody’s more distracted,” Schmidt says. “It’s not just teens.”

By Jillian Daley
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Driver’s ed instructor Jo Barendse says driving techniques have changed, and there are a couple of common mistakes adults make behind the wheel that she’d like to correct. Especially when it comes to the wheel.

• The wheel: When holding the wheel, it’s now recommended to use the 9-and-3 and 8-and-4 positions, with the 10-and-2 position being dropped. Barendse says when an airbag deploys, it can break a driver’s thumbs if they’re too high on the wheel, which would include the 10-and-2 position. Also, it’s best to not cross your hands over one another when making a turn, but to instead push the wheel with one hand and pull with another. That technique gives a driver more control.

• Too close: Once upon a time, the two-second rule was the one drivers followed, but Barendse says that doesn’t provide a driver with enough time to stop, even at slower speeds. She says it’s now the four-second rule. For drivers who have forgotten how to measure that cushion of space, look for an inanimate object (like a tree or telephone pole) on the roadside and count from when the back of the car in front of you passes that object to when the front of your car reaches it. Driver education websites recommend staying even further back in inclement weather, six seconds.


In honor of National Teen Driver Safety Week (Oct. 16-22), the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office is hosting its second-annual "Drive with a Cop" on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Teens will partner with deputies, who are trained as driving instructors, on a driving course to learn how to better maneuver their vehicles in all types of conditions and situations. Speakers will include Carrie Higgins, whose daughter, 17-year-old West Linn High School junior Maddi Higgins died in June 2014. Maddi Higgins was a passenger in a car driven by Clackamas Community college student Hayden Soyk, 18, when Soyk’s vehicle struck a telephone pole. He was also killed. Speed was a factor in the crash. View a video about Maddi Higgins at youtu.be/mFu6TWRdu5I.

The event will be held from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 at Grace Chapel, 9600 Boeckman Road, Wilsonville.