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Learning to drive in the 21st century

Michigan ranked sixth best for teen drivers

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published July 16, 2019

METRO DETROIT — Smartphones, navigation systems, touch-screen music controls and more: It seems that teens learning to drive these days have more distractions than ever to filter out while they concentrate on the task at hand.

But is that a problem?

Dawn VanDenstorm, of St. Clair Shores, is the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is learning to drive this summer. She thinks teens are adapting to the distractions because they’ve grown up with them.

“They don’t really know any other way with the phones and texting,” she said. “It does make, as a parent, me more nervous because it is different than when we took driver’s training; however, it’s still the same basic fundamentals. You have to watch for what other people are doing and always be on the defense.”

According to a study from WalletHub, Michigan is the sixth-best state for teen drivers, taking into account safety, economic factors and driving laws.

Michigan was ranked first for the average cost of car repairs and the presence of distracted driving or texting while driving laws, and second best for the increased auto insurance premiums that parents will pay after adding a teen driver to their policy.

However, Michigan ranked 29th for quality of roads and teen driving under the influence arrests per teen population, and 20th for teen driver fatalities per teen population.

Shellie Simmons, the owner of Alpine Driving School in Southfield, has been teaching teens to drive for more than 15 years. She said that parental involvement and supervision make a big difference in teen driving safety. Parents also need to model good driving habits by putting their phones away as well.

“Parents really need to monitor what their children are doing behind the wheel,” she said. “When they break the rules that (parents) set, then you need to do something about that.

“It’s more involvement needed, and the parents have to stress how important it is.”

She sees distractions both inside the car and out as the top cause of collisions for teenage drivers, whether that be texting, talking on the phone with their friends or talking with their friends in the back seat.

Michigan’s graduated license process restricts some of that, however.

It allows teens ages 14 years and 9 months or older to complete a Segment 1 driver education course with 24 hours of classroom instruction, six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction and four hours of observation as a passenger. After completing that and passing a vision test, the teen is issued a Level 1 license and then must practice driving for at least 30 hours, including two hours at night, under the supervision of a licensed parent or designated adult.

After three months, teens can enroll in Segment 2 driver education, with six hours of classroom instruction and then at least another 50 hours of supervised practice driving with a parent, including 10 hours at night, and then a driving skills test. After a teen turns 16 and has driven on a Level 1 license for at least six months without problems and passed the skills test, they can apply for a Level 2 license, allowing them to drive alone with restrictions.

Teens with Level 2 licenses are not allowed to have more than one non-family passenger in the vehicle under the age of 21 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian over the age of 21 or in some other defined circumstances.

Drivers with Level 1 or 2 licenses are prohibited by law from using a cellphone while operating a vehicle.

Emma VanDenstorm, 15, said that she was allowed to have her phone in the vehicle with her while driving with an instructor of Premiere Driving Academy, but she was not allowed to use it.

“When we were driving with (the driving instructor), it had to be in the back seat,” she said. Students in the back seat also had to put away their phones. “They wanted the people in the back paying attention too.”

Sixteen-year-old Brianna Griessel, of Clinton Township, said she thinks having distractions like phones and construction zones makes driving a little more difficult, “but you also learn better.”

“You know how to handle, like, those situations,” she said.

She and VanDenstorm both said they find it easy to tune out notifications from their phones while behind the wheel.

“Usually, if my mom or my dad knows (that I’m driving), they usually don’t text me,” said Griessel, who now has her driver’s license. “They’re kind of aware that I’m driving, and so they don’t text me and they have me text when I arrive at the place.”

Simmons said that “teenagers are going to be teenagers,” and so parents have to be involved in their driver education.

“We try to focus on how serious it is, driving out there. People around you are doing all sorts of things that they shouldn’t be doing that can cause you to be involved in an accident,” she said. “Parents need to get in the car all different times of the day and see how their kids are driving in traffic, on the freeway ... (and in) subdivisions.”

Driving in those conditions will make teens better drivers in the long run, Dawn VanDenstorm said.

“The more experiences they can have, especially at the permit level with a parent in the car, is definitely advantageous,” she said.

Griessel’s father, David Griessel, of Clinton Township, said he feels that driver’s education training is more strict now than it was when he took it in 1986, “which is probably better.”

But as a father, he worries each time his children get behind the wheel.

“The distractions and road rage are a big concern. There really isn’t much you can do,” he said. “You can tell (them) not to do this and that, but what I do tell them is to always pay attention around you. Always try to know what’s around you.”

Simmons said that she has seen teens get better at balancing good driving habits with the constant distractions they face.

“I do believe the kids are getting better ... (at) listening and trying to do the right thing. I just think that we don’t have a lot of leaders — we have followers,” she said. “They don’t know how to tell their friends no when it comes to peer pressure — saying, ‘No, I’m not going to drive like that.’”