St. Charles Herald-Guide

Driver’s ed brings out worst in licensed drivers

By Michelle Stuckey - June 30, 2011

With the summer months upon us, hundreds of teenage drivers will be hitting the road for the first time during driver's education courses.

A safe driving course is required by state law before teens under 17 years old can obtain their learner's permit. The course lasts 38 hours, which includes 30 hours of classroom instruction and eight hours of behind-the-wheel training.

Locals Roger Folse and Kevin Robicheaux are learning first-hand what it takes to help St. Charles teenagers to “arrive alive.” The two opened the St. Charles Driving Academy this year.

"Driving is just like anything else - the more you practice the better you're going to get," Folse said.

He said that in his experience, the licensed drivers on the road are more dangerous than the student drivers.

"The other drivers try to freak the driver's ed person out," Folse said. "It's not our drivers that do the crazy things, it's the other drivers that are doing crazy things and I'm asking, ‘Who's the crazy one here?'"

Folse said he has seen people pull up next to student drivers and wave their arms, trying to distract them. He has also seen motorcyclists pop wheelies to try to scare the student.

Mike McNamara, owner of River Parishes Safe Driving School in Norco, said he also believes licensed drivers act more carelessly than students.

“I’ve had other people drive alongside the car and try to distract the students by shooting the bird, blowing the horn, imitating the kid, flashing their lights, or even getting in front of the driver’s ed car and stopping quickly to try to make us hit them,” McNamara said. But he also said that those distractions usually happen outside of St. Charles Parish.

According to a GMAC National Driver’s Test, Louisiana is ranked No. 39, with No. 1 being the safest state to drive in and No. 50 being the least safe.

“The more we train these kids on how to drive, the better and safer Louisiana roads are going to become,” Folse said.

While some parents might think they are helping their teen driver by giving them a few pointers, McNamara said that actual driving teachers often have to spend time breaking bad habits that teens learn from their parents.

McNamara has seen hundreds of parish teens learn to drive in the 10 years he has worked as a driving instructor.

"Most of the teenagers learn from their parents and parents really are not the most up-to-date with a lot of the laws…and how to legally drive. They know how to drive - but we have to try to break the habits that parents have taught them," McNamara said.

He said the bad habits can range from driving five miles per hour over the speed limit and tailgating to rolling through stop signs.

He said that modern distractions are another major challenge to teaching teenagers safe driving habits.

“Driving is such a difficult task, but people think they can multitask all the time, whether it’s talking on cell phones, messing with a GPS or eating,” McNamara said. “They’re worried about everything else except what they should be doing and that's driving the vehicle safely and getting everybody from point A to point B.

“That’s one of the biggest things we’re trying to change.”

Kids who want to skip the 38-hour safe driving course will have to wait until they are 17 years old to get their permit. Seventeen-year-olds can opt to take a six-hour classroom course instead of the longer course that includes on-the-road training.