Teens + cars = crash: What's a county to do?

The last thing driver's ed teacher Richard Wharam says he wants is to "walk down my driveway and pick up the paper and see that one of my students has been killed."

Wharam's fears are not unfounded. State numbers show that nearly 18 percent of the students who took driver's ed in Albemarle County in 2001 were later involved in crashes, exceeding the state crash rate of 14.9 percent.

Last year, Albemarle County suffered a record 23 fatalities, including the high-profile July death of Albemarle High student Brittany Bishop. In January of this year, 17-year-old Christopher Campbell, who attended Monticello High School, was killed on U.S. 29 south.

The Albemarle County School Board, wanting to bring the crash numbers down, has directed County high school principals to look at additional rules that would link parking privileges with safety.

Proposals under consideration include taking away school parking permits for students who repeatedly forego seatbelts, who get excessive number of traffic tickets, or who drive with too many teens in the car; requiring students to wait six months after getting their licenses before they can drive to school; toughening penalties for teen traffic convictions.

"Teens have an Achilles heel driving to school," says Wharam, who teaches at Albemarle High School. "If you tie that to parking privileges, you could go a long way to reducing crashes."

"It's the less-experienced drivers who get into trouble," says Albemarle High principal Larry Lawwill. One option, he suggests, is not allowing kids to drive to school until they're 16 1/2.

Having school administrators monitor students as they leave school is more problematic at Albemarle High. With two exits at each of the school's three parking lots, it would take six people to monitor them. "We can't cover all the exits," Lawwill says.

And both Lawwill and Wharam acknowledge that it would take a state law to allow schools to see a record of student driving violations.

Western Albemarle sophomore Caitlin McAleer doesn't think new drivers should have to wait to get a parking permit. "If people have their license, they should be able to drive wherever they want," she says.

And senior Will McKibbin points out that students at Western already have to be juniors to get parking permits.

But Sam Latter, a WAHS junior, thinks some restrictions may help make teen driving safer. "I literally hear about a car wreck by a person at Western at least once a week," he says.

Latter knows of teen drivers who've had six wrecks. "They're poor drivers, and it's scary. They shouldn't be allowed to keep driving to school," he says.

McKibbin and Latter offer a suggestion for improving nouveau drivers: more driver's ed.

"I'd suggest an extra week," says Latter. Instead of the current eight to 10 days of driving with an instructor, he thinks three weeks would "make students realize this is serious."

Monticello High senior Victoria Via was a friend of the late Christopher Campbell, but she doesn't think additional restrictions on teen drivers could have prevented his death. Campbell was wearing his seatbelt and was a responsible driver, she says. "Nothing the school can do can prevent an accident like that."

Still, Wharam is determined to try, and he's intrigued by Greene County's comparatively low student crash rate 15.22 percent versus Albemarle's 17.6 percent. He attributes it to that county's tough law enforcement and sentencing of teen violators.

Juvenile Judge Susan Whitlock has been known to give excessive speeders and reckless drivers three days in a detention facility. Even a lesser offense may earn the teen driver a few hours in jail. "She says she's more concerned about them living than being mad at her," says Greene Police Captain Scott Haas.

And Haas credits Greene's proactive stance toward speed enforcement, of which many speeders are well aware, and law enforcement's visible presence on the road. "We don't always give tickets," he says. "A lot of times we'll call their parents."

Wharam has seen some improvements in teen driving in the past few years, and credits recent Virginia laws that require parents to keep a 40-hour driving log during the learner's permit phase, making youths wait until they're 16 years and three months before they get their licenses, and restricting the number of passengers a new driver can carry.

As roads grow increasingly congested, "a new driver has to learn in more crowded conditions than their parents," observes Wharam. And with 140,000 vehicles added to Virginia's roads each year, more crashes are likely in urban areas.

And in fact, rural Fluvanna and Louisa counties have the lowest student crash rates in this area: 13 and 10.5 percent respectively. However, while there are fewer crashes, Wharam cautions that the number of fatalities is higher in rural areas.

"When they cross that double yellow line," he says, "it's more likely to be a fatality because they're traveling at higher speeds."

The vast majority of crashes are caused by driver inattention, failure to yield, speeding, and following too close, according to Wharam. And even during a driving test, he sees students neglect to yield the right of way and pull out in front of oncoming drivers.

"We routinely fail 25 percent of the kids taking a road test," says Wharam. "I tell them it's a cheap lesson."

GRAPHIC- Student crash rates: Percentage involved in crashes in 2001

Nelson County: 22.3%

Charlottesville: 20.3%

Culpeper: 19.8%

Madison County: 19.6%

Western Albemarle H. S.: 19.2%

Waynesboro: 18.7%

Albemarle County average (AHS, Monticello, WAHS): 17.6%

Albemarle H.S.: 17.4%

Orange County: 17.3%

Monticello H.S.: 15.2%

Greene County: 15.2%

Virginia (average): 14.9%

 Fluvanna County: 13%

Louisa County: 10.5%

–Department of Motor Vehicles