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Road Scholars

Impending Restrictions Prompt Teens to Seek Driver's Ed

April 06, 1998|LIZ SEYMOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you want to know why a state law has been enacted to restrict driving privileges for teens, just scan the bulletin board in Mike Roche's driver's education classroom at Laguna Beach High School.

The wall of photos features track stars, the swim team and candid group shots of students, probably more than 300 of them. Of those, 17 are dead, all victims of car crashes.

It is the kind of grim statistic that has prompted the new law, which glided through the Legislature and takes effect July 1. The measure requires more behind-the-wheel practice before getting a license, and then imposes a series of restrictions on new drivers younger than 18, such as bans on driving late at night or with other youngsters in the car. The restrictions are slowly lifted over time.

Now, in an attempt to beat the law to the punch, teenagers are racing to sign up for their school's driver's education program or for a similar course at a commercial driving school so that they can get their licenses before the restrictions go into effect.

Enrollment in the California Driving School's classes shot up 20% in March from the year before, said Carl Beatty, a vice president for the school with offices in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

"In June, it's going to be just crazy," he said, adding that he plans to double the number of driving instructors to meet the demand.

Similarly, Adrian Lopez, the manager of the AA Teen Driving Academy in Lake Forest, said he is seeing a 10% to 15% increase in customers from last year.

Current state law allows teens who are 16 to apply for a license devoid of any limits one month after they've received a driver's permit and completed driver's education and training courses. Although the new law requires young drivers to get more behind-the-wheel practice, the driver's education curriculum does not change, school officials said.

After information about the new law appeared in the Laguna Beach High School PTA newsletter, Roche said enrollment in his spring class swelled from 30 to 55 students.

But Colleen Cross, the activities director at Woodbridge High School in Irvine, where she runs the driver's education program, said she's not seeing much of an increase in class size. Most students make sure they sign up for driver's education before their 16th birthday so they can get their license as soon as they are eligible, she said.

While the new law has drawn support from educators and law-enforcement officials, perhaps its most vocal opponents are the future drivers of California.

When Nick Radach, a 15-year-old freshman at Laguna Beach High School, learned about the impending changes from his friends, he responded: "No, that can't be."

He said he may wait to get his permit until he's 18, when all the restrictions are lifted. Radach said he won't impose on his parents for transportation, not even if he wants to take a date to see a movie.

"You'll meet the girl there," he said. "You can't have your parents drive."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The New Rules for Young Drivers

Beginning July 1, California joins 20 other states that have graduated driver's licenses for new, young motorists.

Aimed at reducing the number of car accidents caused by teens, the law imposes restrictions on drivers younger than 18 and demands more behind-the-wheel training before teens can apply for a license. Specifically, the changes include:

* Teens must wait six months after obtaining a permit to apply for a license. Current law mandates only 30 days.

* Teens are required to drive for 50 hours, including 10 hours at night, with a parent or other adult, before applying for a license.

* After obtaining a license, new motorists younger than 18 cannot drive any passengers younger than 20 for the first six months.

* New drivers younger than 18 also cannot get behind the wheel between midnight and 5 a.m. for the first year that they have a license unless an adult is in the car. There are exceptions, such as work, medical, family or school responsibilities.

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