Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Licensed and finding more freedom in the driver’s seat

Teens gain independence, responsibility as they switch gears to life behind the wheel

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Seventeen-year-old Peter Ferguson of Chevy Chase checks his rear-view mirror with driving instructor Daryl Young before heading out on his third driving lesson recently.
Earning a driver’s license is a rite of passage for many teenagers, offering more freedom and that first taste of adulthood at age 16.

But with all the independence that comes with a license, new restrictions and responsibility often follow, and the parents of teen drivers can be wary about seeing their children get behind the wheel solo for the first time.

Before Jan Ferguson signed up her 17-year-old son, Peter, for drivers’ education and on-the-road lessons, she carefully considered about whether it was better to wait until her son was more mature, perhaps around 20 or 21, to allow him to drive.

‘‘Peter was not in a tremendous rush to get his license,” she said, although her mind began to change the more active her son became.

‘‘I might as well have had wheels attached to my body,” she said of driving him to and from his school functions, including an internship in Baltimore.

Today, Peter Ferguson of Chevy Chase is on his way to getting his license, a big part of ‘‘the high school experience,” his mother said, although her son takes the step more matter-of-factly.

‘‘I don’t like or dislike driving. ... I see it as a tool,” he said before his last driving lesson with instructor Daryl Young outside Montgomery College’s Health Sciences Building in Silver Spring.

After a recent class at the college’s drivers education program in Silver Spring, the mostly teenage participants in the 18-member course recalled their first experiences behind the wheel, mostly with nervous parents.

‘‘My dad kinda yells. ... My mom still won’t get in the car with me,” said Bridget Egan, 18, of Takoma Park.

‘‘My dad didn’t really want me to drive,” said 16-year-old Silver Spring resident Stephanie Posthuma, recalling an incident not too long ago when she ran over a curb. ‘‘My dad got me my own car really cheap, an ’05 Geo Prism, but it has a flat tire right now.”

‘‘I’ve had to use a hammer to start my dad’s car up in the winter,” said Nate Lewis, 16, of Silver Spring.

‘‘Sometimes I’m scared my dad’s car will fall apart,” said Josiah Hasneh, 17, of Silver Spring. ‘‘The driver’s side door is painted green, and it breaks down sometimes at stops.”

Marcy Jackson, program director for the college’s drivers’ education program and the Transportation Safety Institute, said getting teens into cars with instructors besides their parents could ease tensions at home.

‘‘Sometimes they don’t have as comfortable a teaching relationship in the car, because they’re too close to the parent,” Jackson said. ‘‘We often get feedback on what parents think their kids should work on.”

For Martha Riva of Rockville, enrolling her teenage triplets in driving lessons at the college was a way to preserve her sanity.

‘‘I could say I was not a good person to do it,” Riva said of the 60-hours behind the wheel required statewide before teens can get their license. ‘‘After about 20 hours with each, I could say I was not the right person to do it.”

Jan Ferguson remembers her first experience behind the wheel as a stressful one for her father. She was 16, with two younger brothers and a younger sister waiting in line for their turn to drive with dad.

‘‘I remember once that I stomped on the brake and nearly put my father through the windshield,” she joked, adding that her son, Peter, was a much more cautious driver than her older son, Dana, who likes more of a ‘‘pedal to the metal” style of driving.

A teenager’s first 500 miles of driving are the most dangerous, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A number of restrictions targeting teen drivers and put into effect in October 2005 have helped to ease parents’ worries. Since then, drivers in Maryland younger than age 18 have been barred from using cell phones — except for emergency calls — and driving around passengers younger than age 18.

‘‘Right now, there’s so many restrictions on them, either by the state or by me, they probably haven’t had the opportunity yet to develop their own driving style yet,” Riva said.

For Jan Ferguson, allowing her son to get behind the wheel is a sign of his ‘‘maturity and responsibility.” Her son Peter is just happy not to bug his mother for rides anymore.

‘‘For me, it was always if I get to drive, then cool. If not, then oh well,” he said.