Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among young people in the United States. Sixteen to 20-year-olds make up only seven percent of the nation's drivers, but they are involved in 14 percent of fatal crashes. Last year there were more than 1.6 million crashes involving these young drivers, leaving some 5,000 teens dead.
According to police, the reason for most of the crashes was driver inexperience. Many concerned parents believe taking driver's education will help their kids operate a car more safely. But, with few schools offering such classes, parents are turning to private businesses for help preparing young people to hit the road.
One evening each week, about 20 teenagers get together at a small office building in Duluth, Georgia, a suburb northeast of Atlanta. They sit in a classroom, where an instructor teaches them about traffic laws and other driving basics.
Then one at a time, the students step into a separate room where a virtual reality machine puts their driving skills to the test.
"These instructions will give you advance warnings for turns and other maneuvers you must complete during the drive. Do not make any turns or change direction during your drive without instructions. Just continue on the course. These instructions will give you advance warnings about without instructions."
The driving simulator has a seat, ignition switch, steering wheel, foot pedals, a complete dashboard, and 3 screens that create a 270-degree view, the same view a driver gets in a car. Instructor Rod Parris can choose from several hundred routes for each student to virtually drive. Sixteen-year-old Tricia Andrews gets ready.
Tricia: "Okey dokey."
Parris: "Ok start the engine up."
She has to navigate a series of computerized poles and orange cones set up in what looks like a big empty parking lot.
Tricia: "Oops! So I messed up, uh"
Tricia crashed into three cones but overall she's doing relatively well. Instructor Parris steps over to a computer that controls the simulator, hits a few keys, and up comes the image of an expressway. After about a minute, Mr. Parris decides to make another car swerve in front of his student driver.
"I've clicked on this sign right here, it's a (Chevy) Bronco. It's stopped in her lane to see how she reacts to it." Mr. Parris said.
"Very good reaction!"
The instructor can make it rain or snow, even cause a flat tire. The chief instructor here, Tim Roberts, says the simulator exposes kids to real situations in a safe environment.
"If we can teach them and train them to do it the right way, when they get in a car they will know what it's like," he said. "It's actually a little harder in simulation than it is in real-time drive."
This driver's education course is run by a company called Safe Drive Technologies. It was founded in Pittsburgh in 1999 and quickly attracted enough business to open new branches. The course also includes six hours of driving an actual car enough to meet Georgia's minimum requirement for a driver's education course.
Drivers' education was once part of the public school curriculum in many states. But with the rising cost for cars, instructors and liability insurance, many schools have given up the programs. And many companies that offer private driver's education are seeing their business boom. California-based Penschool runs a course over the Internet that teaches some driving basics. Company owner Gina Gates says a couple of years ago she had just a few thousand customers.
"This year I think we will have about 10,000 to 12,000 students in our program," she said.
Penschool and other companies also sell materials to parents to help them teach their kids to drive. That's an option many parents choose. But some, like Tricia's mother Betty Andrews, believe that's not enough for teens.
"They hear other people sometimes better than their parents," she said. "It's not like 'Oh, mom's just going off the deep end. Somebody else is concerned about this too.'"
The young people at the program in Duluth want to be safe drivers. Half of them know teens who have died in car accidents. Sixteen-year-old Marla Collins lost a classmate over the summer and knows someone else who was paralyzed in a crash just a couple of weeks ago.
So when her mom wanted her to take driver's education, she did not argue.
Collins: "My mom doesn't want me to die. That's about it."
Levs: "What do you want?"
Collins: "I want my license, so I'm here!"
Across the country, there's a movement to bring driver's education back into the schools. But some experts warn against putting too much emphasis on these programs.
"There have been studies that looked at crashes following driver's education," Gene Shope, a senior research scientist with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute said. "It's hard to demonstrate that driver's education has reduced the crashes that are on record."
More important safety factors, she says, are seatbelt laws and graduated licensing, which makes new drivers wait months or a year before they can drive at night or with a young passenger. Substance abuse, lack of parental supervision, and risk-taking in general, all contribute to teen crashes, and Ms. Shope says parents shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that because their kids have had driver's education they'll automatically be safe drivers. That, she says, comes with time and experience.