By SUSAN SCHELL
There are several milestones that stand out as huge red letters on the calendar of a young person's life: High school graduation, turning 18 and, of course, getting a driver's license.
A driver's license is a symbol of freedom, the wings that launch a teenager into the world of mobility and independence. However, today's kids are faced with more restrictive driving laws than ever before.
The Oregon Teen Driving Law, implemented March 1, 2000, restricts the age and number of passengers a driver under the age of 18 may have in the vehicle. For one full year after receiving their license, teens are limited in the amount of hours they can drive at night.
Brookings-Harbor High School driver education teacher Dino Cooper said teenagers are required to give proof to the Department of Motor Vehicles that they are enrolled in an ongoing education program.
"They won't be able to get a license if they don't maintain regular grades or are not actively pursuing an education," Cooper said.
"When they apply at the DMV they have to be achieving regular progress. If they're not in public school, if they're home schooled, they have to provide written proof from their parents that they're receiving an ongoing education."
He said the logic behind this requirement is that "Too many kids have tried to drop out of school and just get jobs. They usually need to drive to their jobs, so we try to get them to stay in school by dangling the car keys in front of them."
In Brookings, driver's training programs are taking a bite out of students' summer vacations. The students are required to take the courses after the regular school year ends.
"(The driver programs) were cut out of the regular school year because it required outside school time," Cooper said.
"Kids are also involved in sports activities and it got hard to schedule into the curriculum. If they wanted to take driver courses during the year they had to be pulled out of their regular classes."
Cooper points out that other legislative requirements are making things difficult for driver education teachers as well.
"The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is currently reviewing the idea of requiring significant hours of training for driver education teachers," he said.
"This is a real issue for people not living in the Willamette Valley. The only training is in Corvalis; the overall expense will be around $1,500.
"They want to make sure people are teaching driver education properly, but it's a case of a good idea gone bad because of excess.
"With legislative requirements someone always wants to tack on their pet point' until it becomes unmanageable."
Cooper added, "If ODOT has to come up with the money, than they won't have the funds for other projects.
"They come up with ideas that were initially good ideas. We have yet to have an assessment tool that teachers will accept, but people across the state can not agree on what the standards should be."
Getting a Break
In the legislative arena, teenagers did get one break this year. The Oregon Transportation Commission approved a change in an administrative rule that placed a one-year suspension on the driver's license of anyone under 18 for a third traffic offense and/or preventable accident.
The Department of Motor Vehicles received public complaints that suspending a teen's driving privileges for an entire year placed a significant burden on the teen and their parents, who would need to assist with alternative transportation.
The suspension was reduced to six months.
Despite increasingly crowded roads due to the burgeoning population and tough laws, learning to drive is still an important and enjoyable experience for most teenagers.
Driver's education classes are now equipped with computers sporting state-of-the-art software. Video game-type programs take the students on a virtual driving course that simulates different road conditions and situations. One program even simulates the delayed reaction time and loss of control an individual experiences while intoxicated.
Brookings students get long driving lessons, since freeway driving is required for the course, and they must drive all the way to Crescent City to get to something that even resembles a freeway.
Driving instructor Jim Keys said, "the biggest challenge of being in such a remote area is that there are so many narrow, winding roads. It takes a little time for the kids to become comfortable, but they always improve. They're always excited about driving."