BLOOMINGTON — Fewer teens are dying on Illinois roads due to elevated driver’s education programs, more parental involvement and increased awareness.

To mark National Teen Driver Safety Week, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White announced teen driving deaths are down 51 percent since 2008.

After a string of 15 teen traffic deaths in Tazewell county in 2005 and 2006, White toughened the state’s Graduated Driver License (GDL) program. The changes took effect in 2008.

Local officials agreed that the new GDL requirements, combined with other efforts, are what led to safer teen driving.

Fortified GDL laws

“Prior to the GDL, students would go to the classroom, get their permit, do some formal instruction and receive their license within a few months,” said Steve Price, driver’s education teacher at Normal Community West High School since 1995.

The enhanced rules require students to complete 50 hours of practice driving, including 10 hours of driving at night, supervised by an adult. Passenger limitations, driving curfew and strict cell phone laws are also enforced.

“Those are the biggest requirements that have contributed to students being involved in fewer collisions,” said Price.

Elias Mendiola, Bloomington Police Department spokesman, said the increase in required driving hours, especially at night, is “a catalyst to prepare students for further experience.”

“The more hours parents get with their students in the car, the better,” said Mendiola. “Once they get their initial license, restricting passengers, enforcing a curfew and cutting other distractions make the biggest impact on safety.”

Parent involvement

Mendiola said parents should have “honest and true dialogue” with teen drivers about their own experiences and expectations.

“Driving is a great responsibility, so parents should spell out boundaries,” said Mendiola. “The law says teens (ages 15-17) can’t be out on the weekend past 11 p.m. If they come home at 1 a.m., the license isn’t legally valid. Parents should say, ‘You didn’t get caught by police, but we caught you.’ Maybe from there, they can say the teen isn’t allowed to drive on the weekend.”

Price said classroom instruction and parent education is a “joint effort” in nurturing new drivers.

“When teens are on the road with their parents, they should talk about the driving environment and decisions they make while on the road,” said Price. “Working through those tough intersections and learning how to merge on the interstate together just enforces what we’re doing in the classroom.”

In 2007, State Farm partnered with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and members of Congress to create National Teen Driver Safety Week. The purpose is to shine light on ways to keep young drivers safe and encourage adults to speak with teens about how to avoid risky driving behavior.

"Research from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, funded by State Farm, has found that you can cut your teens’ crash risk in half by staying involved, setting rules and being supportive,” said Missy Dundov, State Farm spokeswoman. “Also, provide teens with plenty of supervised practice in a variety of places, conditions and at night.”

Distracted driving 

“Students are tied to social media. We have a lot of discussion and intervention in the classroom regarding cell phones in the car,” said Price. “Schools are doing a better job of educating them, not just about the consequences, but helping them work through the decision-making process.”

Still, Mendiola said more students have heard of the consequences of cell phone use while driving and don’t want to risk it.

“They’re thinking, ‘I just received this license. If I have that cell phone up to my ear, I’ll get caught and it’s a ticket-able offense. My freedom will be taken away from me,'” he said.

Dundov said State Farm “takes a collaborative approach” to reduce cell phone use while driving.

“That includes teen-led programs, effective and affordable driver education, strong GDL laws, parental involvement and advances in safety technology,” she said.

Continued awareness

School resource officers at Bloomington-Normal junior highs and high schools also take time to talk to students about traffic safety and laws.

“It’s another good reminder,” said Mendiola. “The officers are teaching while building relationships through honesty with these kids.”

Students are more vocal about their opinions of risky behavior while driving, said Price.

"Kids now are more mindful of the responsibilities they have as a driver," added Price. "They are making good decisions."

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer


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