Driver's education classes cut while teen crashes increase

Driver's education classes cut while teen crashes increase

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Karns High School students participate in a mock crash disaster drill. Karns High School students participate in a mock crash disaster drill.
Powell High School in Knox County has adopted a Drivers' Awareness Week program, opting out of the year-round driver's education classes. Powell High School in Knox County has adopted a Drivers' Awareness Week program, opting out of the year-round driver's education classes.
"When we looked at what we could cut and prioritize what was most important, our board decided we could eliminate driver's ed because of the short fall in the revenue," said Anderson County Director of Schools Larry Foster. "When we looked at what we could cut and prioritize what was most important, our board decided we could eliminate driver's ed because of the short fall in the revenue," said Anderson County Director of Schools Larry Foster.

By ALEXIS ZOTOS
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - East Tennessee school administrators and first responders say making the hard choice of cutting driver's education programs can have unfortunate consequences.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens in the country. Teens are involved in fatal crashes three times more than all other drivers, much of that is attributed to inexperience.

"It scares me every time we run a wreck, especially in my hometown in the Powell area," said Jeff Petress, assistant chief for Knox County Volunteer Rescue Squad.

Last year in Knox County alone there were 2,172 crashes involving teens. Four were fatal. In particular, the Powell community has an alarming rate of teen deaths. In the last 15 years, more than 20 teens have been killed.

"The first thing we have to do in any school, in education, is ensure student safety," said Laura Whittington, a teacher and advisor for Powell High School's Driver Awareness Club.

But Powell High School, along with five other Knox County high schools, have stopped offering driver's education.

Karns, West, Bearden, Carter and South Doyle no longer offer driver's ed. Most now offer a driver awareness week with mock crashes and simulated driving.

"[Driver's Awareness Week] is very good for Powell High School," said senior Bretlyn Zickefoose. "We are known for a lot of people in wrecks. It's good for parents to see, ok well, we ensure our kids are driving safely."

Since Powell High School started the Driver's Awareness Program, which is a partnership between Rural/Metro, the Powell Business Association and the school, there has been a decrease in accidents.

But is the program enough?

"It's never enough," said Petress, who sees first hand the dangers of teens on the road. "That's the thing with the drivers ed program. It's a class they take every day. They're out on the road once or twice a week but in their class, studying, watching videos every day."

Knox County School Board member Mike McMillian is now calling for driver's education to be reinstated at all county high schools.

"I think anything we can do to help promote safe driving, safe instruction, it's the responsibility of the board and the superintendent," McMillian said.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre says it's up to the schools to decide.

"I think it's a very appropriate way we go about allocating resources to schools and then allowing our school principals and our school communities some flexibility and autonomy around what instructional choices they make that best serve their students," Dr. McIntyre said.

Knox County is not the only system that has opted out of driver's ed classes. Anderson County has also stopped offering the program.

"When we looked at what we could cut and prioritize what was most important, our board decided we could eliminate driver's ed because of the shortfall in the revenue," explained Anderson County Director of Schools Larry Foster.

With 421 teen accidents in Anderson County and one death since last year, Dr. Foster says it's a hard decision to make.

"Do you choose mathematics over driving? Certainly if it can save a life it changes the dynamic all together, but I can't sit here and play what ifs. Students have accidents, adults have accidents, and it's unfortunate some of them are fatalities," Dr. Foster said.

Whether it's for a semester or just an afternoon, all parties agree education is key to driving home the importance of safety.

"It won't necessarily prevent it, but it will make them think twice before they get behind the wheel," Petress said.

Over the years the number of teen crashes in the state has decreased, but fatalities are back on the rise.

In 2009, there were 31,325 crashes and 90 deaths. In 2010, there were 29,882 crashes and 75 deaths.

In 2011, there were 29,147 crashes and 77 deaths. Last year, the numbers increased to 29,337 crashes and 89 deaths.

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