NEWS- Driver's ed: Parents must attend class too

As if the task of teaching a teen to drive weren't harrowing enough, Albemarle County has added a new wrinkle: a back-to-school night where attendance is mandatory– for parents.

Starting January 2006, before a wannabe teen driver in Albemarle can sign up for behind-the-wheel training at county schools, a parent or guardian must attend a two-hour seminar. Not everyone is thrilled with the course.

"It really didn't offer any advice I hadn't already considered," says Judith Carlin. "I'd already taught a child to drive."

"I found the stats about teen drivers interesting," says parent Robin Simard. "I'm not sure I found the class helpful. I question having it mandatory, and I really felt a little put-upon."

Albemarle High driving instructor Richard Wharam sees the parent seminars as a way to combat the rising number of accidents involving teen drivers and points to a particularly tragic spate in northern Virginia, when 15 young people died in crashes in September and October 2004. 

"One was dying every other day," says Wharam. "The folks in Stafford County panicked."

Stafford implemented parent seminars in January 2005. Albemarle is the third county in Virginia to send parents back to school. Each of the county's three high schools offers the seminars once a month.

Wharam blames the increased crashes on growth. "The problem is, today there are twice as many drivers," he explains. "These new drivers are paying the price."  

For years, crash rates for new drivers hovered at 15 percent, says Wharam. But they skyrocketed in 2004. In Albemarle, 25 percent of first-year drivers wreck, compared to 19 percent in the state. "Albemarle," he notes, "has the same insurance rates as Fairfax."

Albemarle School Board Chair Sue Friedman thinks the parent seminars are a good idea. "We have that requirement so parents will be engaged with the new state requirements," she says. For instance, drivers-in-training must keep a behind-the-wheel log and document 40 hours of driving time before getting a license, and they must demonstrate aptitude using "push-pull" steering instead of the old 10 o'clock/2 o'clock hand positions their parents learned.

All schools in northern Virginia require parent seminars, says Friedman, and some schools want more than two hours. Charlottesville does not require parents to take driver's ed.

Friedman says the reaction she's gotten from parents has been "very positive." Many of them had been unaware of the more rigorous requirements for their children to get a license, she says.

Wharam says parental grousing usually abates when parents understand why attendance is required. But there are exceptions. Of the father who called and asked what day he had to "waste" two hours of his time, says Wharam, "I worried about his child."

A talk by an insurance agent that's part of the parent program has also prompted criticism. "When I went, we had a 45-minute commercial for State Farm," says Carlin. 

Wharam disputes that characterization and says he chose State Farm because the company employs about 1,500 locals and sprang for $8,000 worth of brochures, all of which bear the State Farm logo.

Wharam considers insurance information essential for those who think they can get by merely by buying the state minimum of $25,000 in personal injury liability coverage. "How long can someone stay in intensive care for $25,000?" he asks. "My God, if you paralyze someone..."

"I have not sold one policy as a result of this," says State Farm agent Greg Leffler. "I'm doing it as a civic duty. We see the accidents teens have."

Both Carlin and Simard concede the class might help people who are teaching their first child to drive, but they suggest that parents who already have successfully shepherded one child to a license should be grandfathered in– or out– of the class.

And send the guides home earlier, advises Carlin. "Sometimes by the time you have the class you've already been teaching your child for six months."

She points out that since both parents are not required to go, the parent who attends may not be the one who teaches. "I think for most parents, because of the time constraints, this isn't helpful," she says.

Two Albemarle parents whose children were taking private driving lessons told the Hook it wasn't clear that they didn't have to attend the seminar.

"If an Albemarle parent doesn't want to do the seminar, they can put their kids in Cavalier and Gest," offers Wharum, adding that the crash rates of graduates of those two private companies are 25.5 percent and 21.89 percent respectively.

Parent seminars are spreading around the country, says Wharum, who adds, "The only way we're going to get crash rates down is to get parents involved."

Says Friedman, "This will help young people become safer drivers, which we all want."

[Disclosure: Reporter Lisa Provence has attended the parent seminar for her own upcoming driver.]

First-year crash rates 2004 2001

Albemarle High 26.91% 17.4%

Monticello High 20.95 15.2

Western Albemarle 17.55 19.2

Fluvanna 30.77 13

Louisa 18.75 10.5

William Monroe (Greene) 26.83 15.2

Nelson 14.29 22.3

Charlottesville 22 20.3

Source: Department of Motor Vehicles