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The 6,477 teen drivers in Southern Maryland make up less than 3 percent of the driving population, but are involved in hundreds of accidents each year.

The encouraging news is that each Southern Maryland county has seen a decline in accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 20 during the last five years, according to data from the Maryland Highway Safety Office.

Accidents involving drivers ages 16 to 20 in St. Mary’s County dropped from 446 in 2007 to 315 last year. In Calvert County they dropped from 421 to 294 and from 805 to 524 in Charles County during the same period.

However, those statistics are not the uppermost on the minds of most teens as they await what some call the ultimate pass to liberty — the driver’s license.

Driving is a rite of passage for teenagers, said Meaghan Pfeiffer, 17, of Charlotte Hall. “It’s a sense of freedom,” she said.

She uses her 2007 Volkswagen Jetta, which was a gift from her parents, to drive to and from school and work and to run an occasional errand.

She is planning to take college classes at the College of Southern Maryland after graduating from high school and then transferring to a four-year college.

Pfeiffer was close friends with Katie Murray, a La Plata student who died in a car accident last year.

A foundation established in Murray’s name aims to improve teen driving habits, including helping to fund the Drive2Survive classes offered through CSM.

Pfeiffer took the class last year. CSM offers the special class occasionally, when there are enough participants.

“I actually felt so much more safe behind the wheel after I took the course,” the La Plata High School senior said.

Driving, she knows, as evidenced by her friend’s death, is a serious responsibility.

“It was horrible. She was such a bright student. It was a shock,” Pfeiffer said. “We learned the reality that this could happen to anybody,” she said.

Each year, there are fatal accidents on Southern Maryland roadways involving teenagers.

Drivers in Maryland younger than 18 are prohibited from carrying any passengers younger than 18 for the first 151 days of having their license, excluding family members. That law may help reduce distractions, and accidents, but they still happen.

The likelihood of a 16- or 17-year-old driver being killed in a crash increases with each additional young passenger in the vehicle, according to a study released this month by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Conversely, carrying at least one passenger 35 or older reduces a teen driver’s risk of death by 62 percent, a statistic that the study said highlighted the protective influence that parents and other adults have in the car.

The study analyzed crash data from 2007 to 2010 and the number of miles driven by 16- and 17-year-olds.

Waiting longer for a license

CSM operates basic driver’s education classes at its main campuses in all three Southern Maryland counties as well as at each public high school in Calvert and Charles counties.

The classes offered after school at the six Charles and four Calvert high schools are popular and usually more convenient for new drivers, said Mike Whelan, a driving instructor with CSM.

Whelan said the college has been trying for years to offer programs at the three public high schools in St. Mary’s, and that recently that school system has shown interest. He hopes to have classes offered at the three St. Mary’s schools in the fall of 2013.

The class costs $325, and along with the $50 cost of a learner’s permit is about all that is needed to be for teens to be on their way behind the wheel, Whelan said.

The class includes 30 hours of classroom instruction as well as six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction. Maryland’s graduated licensing system also requires rookie drivers to complete an additional 60 hours of driving with a parent, guardian or mentor before they are eligible for a provisional driver’s license, which allows them to drive on their own.

Other driving schools offer similar instruction.

“It’s only four days and once in a lifetime to learn how to drive by yourself,” Whelan said of the combined 96 hours of required training.

Last year the college instructed 1,709 new drivers. Almost 10 percent, or 165 students, were older than 18, he said.

“We can only take so many a month,” Whelan said, adding that most classes, especially at the college’s Leonardtown campus, do fill up.

Whelan said that the number of students older than 18 taking the new course has increased over the years as people wait to get their license for a variety of reasons, including not enough money, not enough time or being too scared.

“There’s still an abundance of 16-year-olds,” Whelan said.

In Maryland, the percentage of teenage drivers has shifted substantially over the last decade toward age 19, showing a trend of students waiting to get their license, according to an analysis of data provided by the Maryland Highway Safety Office.

In fiscal 2002, about 63 percent of teen drivers were age 18 or 19. By last fiscal year that number was as high as 74 percent, showing that the age when young people obtain their license is trending older.

While the overall number of teen drivers in Maryland was reduced over that period of time from 2002 to 2011, the number of drivers at age 16 saw the most dramatic reduction, going from 19,958 to 5,722.

La Plata High senior Pfeiffer said she would like to see the driving age raised higher than it is now. “It’s kind of scary to see juniors on the road driving,” she said, adding that the summer between a junior and senior year “really makes a difference” in maturity levels.

“We require driver’s education for all new drivers,” said Buel Young, spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. The state oversees the curriculum, which is consistent across all programs, he said.

He said the state recently changed some of the rules for drivers, including prohibiting texting and talking on a cell phone while driving.

Another recent change is that a learner’s permit is now valid for as long as two years, twice as long as previously. This gives new drivers more time to practice if they do not feel comfortable or ready to drive on their own, Young said.

“We stress parental involvement,” Young said. “With more time behind the wheel comes experience.”

Instructors insist that it’s up to parents to round out the driver’s education experience. Even as parents reach for a steering wheel that isn’t there at every turn or stomp on an imaginary brake at each stop sign, they are doing a service for young drivers.

Parents or other adults are required to be in the car with the new driver 10 times as much as the instructor, and, whether they want to admit it or not, most children pay attention to how their parents drive and handle certain driving situations.

Whelan and other instructors encourage parents to take a look at their own driving skills.

“Unlike the parents, we’re relaxed in the car, and we have the passenger-side brake,” Whelan said.

Instructors can, and do, use the brake pedal on the floor of the passenger seat of the cars the novice drivers use, he said.

For the newest of drivers, the ones who don’t even have a learner’s permit yet to practice with parents, the instructors usually start out the behind-the-wheel lessons with a few laps around a parking lot or other less-traveled areas.

The lessons increase in difficulty, sometimes including a trip across the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge in Solomons or a jaunt on the Capital Beltway.

Finding a good course of action

Will Liebler, a sophomore at Leonardtown High School, said he took the driver’s education course at CSM in February, a few months after getting his learner’s permit.

“It was a really good course. It was somehow not boring, what everyone would expect,” the 16-year-old said.

He said the practice driving with an instructor also was helpful, especially all of the small pointers he received.

He said that while he does see a lot of people around his age waiting past age 16 to get their license, he and his close friends all have been ready and waiting.

“Most of my friends are getting it as soon as they possibly can,” he said.

He said he feels like he’ll be a good, safe driver, adding that he hopes to use one of his family’s cars to commute to school and sports practices.

“I’m really looking forward to having a lot more freedom,” and not having to ask his parents to drive him everywhere he wants to go, Liebler said.

A parent or guardian is required to attend a classroom orientation with students on the first day of driver’s education.

One thing instructor Whelan always tells the class is that a parent must give permission and sign for a new driver’s license, and that the parent can take away that permission any time prior to the driver’s 18th birthday.

“A lot of parents at the orientation are shocked to hear that. They didn’t know they had so much power,” Whelan said.

Mike Adams, the lead instructor at CSM’s Prince Frederick campus, said they want to provide as many learning opportunities as possible, even if that means bringing in another agency. For instance, he said, the Chesapeake Region Safety Council teaches the Alive at 25 program at the Prince Frederick campus.

Cpl. Christopher M. Bowling of the Maryland State Police La Plata barrack is one of the program’s instructors.

“We try to give them another way to assist them in driving,” Bowling said of himself and the other teacher, senior trooper Justin Zimmerman.

The officers teach students, most of whom are there because of a court order after a traffic infraction, about the rules of the road and other safe-driving tips, like how to avoid peer pressure.

He said he informs students about the relatively new cell phone law, which now allows police to pull over a driver who is talking on a cellphone.

Another new law calls for drivers to move over a lane to give room to police officers who have a vehicle pulled over.

Bowling said students are often unaware of the rule.

It’s important to make sure young drivers know these laws first thing so they quickly get used to abiding by them, he said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com

A little at a time

A person must be at least 15 years and 9 months to obtain a learner’s permit. He or she must pass knowledge and vision tests and, if younger than 18, have parental consent. A licensed adult must be in the vehicle with a learner’s permit driver. During the learner’s permit phase, a new driver must complete 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction through an approved driver’s education course.

After holding the learner’s permit for at least nine months and reaching the age of at least 16 years and 6 months, a person can apply for a provisional license. That license allows a person to drive on his own, but not between midnight and 5 a.m. No texting or cellphone use is allowed, and for the first five months of a provisional license no one younger than 18, except family members, can ride in a vehicle with a provisional driver.

A person can apply for his full driver’s license at the age of 18.

For more information on Maryland’s Rookie Driver system, visit www.mva.maryland.gov/Driver-Services/RookieDriver/default.htm.

Accidents involving drivers age 16 to 21

From 2007 to 2011

5-year totals Involving injury Fatality

Calvert 1,787 447 4/9

Charles 3,287 772 12/16

St. Mary’s 1,998 607 6/13

Alcohol/drugs Fatigue/asleep

Calvert 90 9Charles 100 18

St. Mary’s 73 23 Primary contributing factor

Too fast Failed to yeild right of way Not paying attention Followed too closely

Calvert 16% 12% 9% 8%

Charles 16% 12% 10% 8%

St. Mary’s 12% 13% 1% 14%

Source: Maryland Highway Safety Office