Driver’s education programs across Georgia are experiencing traffic jams of their own because of a new state law requiring 16-year-olds to undergo behind-the-wheel training before getting a license.
The statute, which took effect Jan. 1, is known as Joshua’s Law — named for 17-year-old Joshua Brown of Cartersville, who died in 2003 after his truck hydroplaned on a wet road and hit a tree. Under the state law passed in 2005, 16-year-olds can’t get a license until they take 30 hours of classroom instruction and have 40 hours of driving experience supervised by a parent or a certified driving instructor.
Only about half of the state’s 159 counties have driver’s education programs licensed by the state — either in a high school or through a private company — and they are especially scarce in rural areas. Generally about 60,000 of the state’s 16-year-olds do not take driver’s education, which means those teens will have to find somewhere to get trained if they want to drive before their 17th birthdays, at which time the training is no longer required for them.
“It’s kind of a supply and demand problem,” said Mark Ausburn, who teaches the only driver’s education program in Habersham County in the mountains of northeast Georgia. “We’re getting calls from students in other counties and homebound students. We can’t even cover our own students, much less everybody else.”
The program — offered through Habersham Central High School — provides 13 driver’s education classes each year, but it only serves about 300 students. And like many rural school districts, Habersham County can’t afford to hire another driver’s education instructor.
Anticipating that driver’s ed programs would see increased demand under the law, the state licensed two private companies to provide online courses and tacked a 5 percent surcharge on all traffic fines to help fund driver’s education.
The revenue from that surcharge began accruing Jan. 1, and the Georgia Driver’s Education Commission hasn’t decided yet exactly how the money will be spent, said Susan Sports, spokeswoman for the state Department of Driver’s Services.
The state also is seeing a jump in the number of driver’s education companies and schools applying for licenses. Last year, the state certified 67 new instructors, compared to 17 the previous year. Nine schools also received the OK to start driver’s ed programs in 2006, when the previous year there were only two.
And right now the state is reviewing 83 applications for new instructors and 10 applications for new driver’s ed schools, Sports said.
In the meantime, some schools are beefing up their existing programs to meet the new demand.
Deerfield-Windsor School — one of three places offering driver’s education in Dougherty County in southwest Georgia — is adding another section of its class, which will double enrollment to 80. Instructor Gordy Gruhl said he started getting calls about the summer classes even before Christmas, which is unusual.
“We’ve started getting them a lot earlier and from a lot of people,” he said. “If I wanted to, I could probably work all summer.”
Taggart’s Driving School, which has nine classroom sites in metro Atlanta and works with some area schools, expects a 25 percent increase in business this year, especially during the busy summer months. President J. Barry Schrenk said he is unsure how many students will apply for Taggart’s online course.
Melissa Savage, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, called Joshua’s Law “innovative.” Most states have enacted graduated driver’s licenses where students who take driver’s education can move faster from phase to phase, but few states actually require driver’s education for all 16-year-olds, she said.
Trey Bryant, 15, who took a driving lesson Wednesday at the Taggart’s location in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker, said the driver’s ed requirement is a good idea but admits that most of his friends see it as a hassle.
“People are crazy when they get behind the wheel, so they need some other training other than their parents,” the Lilburn resident said.
On The Net:
Georgia Department of Driver’s Services:
Joshua Brown Foundation: http://www.joshuabrownfoundation.org/
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