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Driving instructors, police steering teenagers in a safe direction

State law bans cellphone use while driving

Dec. 19, 2012

There was a time when learning to drive meant focusing on the basics, like parallel parking, U-turns and the rules of the road.

With advances in technology, however, new drivers are now barraged with opportunities to lose their focus on their technique: interactive radio systems, texting and talking on a cellphone, for instance.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,000 people were killed in the United States in distracted driving crashes in 2010.

So driver's education students at Brookfield East and Brookfield Central high schools are learning the importance of keeping both hands on the wheel and away from distractions.

The schools contract with Just Drive, a private driver's education franchise.

Trish Smith, owner of the Brookfield franchise, said her goal is to make sure teens are not only learning the basics of driving, but are also educated on the risks of inattentive driving.

"As they go through our program, the students will see a number of public service announcements and movies that show them some of the misconceptions and dangers of driving," Smith said.

One of the public service announcements shows a teen crashing into a car stopped at a red light while using a cellphone, giving students an example of why that distraction was made illegal as of Nov. 1 for any driver with a probationary license or instructional permit.

"We want to educate these young drivers as much as possible because they are going to be out on the roads driving with us," Smith said. "We educate them that not only is it important to be an offensive driver by following all the rules of the road, but even more importantly to be a defensive driver." Smith said.

Learning curves

Jeff Fidlin is an instructor for Just Drive and teaches the three-week written portion of the class at Brookfield East.

As a retired police officer with 36 years of experience, Fidlin has seen his share of traffic violations, and uses those experiences in combination with classroom curriculum to teach teen drivers to be attentive.

He also teaches a traffic safety course and two group dynamics courses for drivers arrested for driving while impaired at Waukesha County Technical College.

Fidlin said young drivers abandon classroom lessons after passing their road tests, and distractions aren't the only thing concerning him about teen drivers.

"The biggest problems I see with the students are speeding and crashes," Fidlin said. "They want to look cool, especially around the schools because they have their license - it's the pride of it."

One improvement that could be made in teaching young drivers would be extending the amount of practice required before getting a license, he said.

The power of 'cool'

Wisconsin allows drivers at least 15 years and six months old to get an instructional permit after enrolling in a driver's education course and passing a knowledge test. Permit-holders must complete 30 driving hours with one driver 19 or older with at least two years of experience.

After six months, the driver can apply for a probationary license, a restricted driver's license, expiring two years after the applicant's next birthday.

Students in Fidlin's current class haven't started the behind-the-wheel portion of the course yet, but said they are aware of the dangers of impaired and inattentive driving, not wearing a seatbelt and speeding.

Sophomore Amanda Hodgson said she thinks some teens don't wear their seatbelt because of the "cool" factor.

"They feel free when they don't have it on," she said.

"One of my friends, no one in his family has ever worn a seat belt," Brady Perkins, a sophomore in the class, said.

New law in play

Brookfield police Capt. Phil Horter said officers are watching the areas near Brookfield high schools for seatbelt violations and drivers who text or talk on cellphones since a new state law banned cellphone use for new drivers.

Horter mailed a letter to parents of high school students to inform them of the new law.

"The City of Brookfield Police (Department) is very concerned for the safety of the young drivers in our community and will strictly enforce these traffic laws, especially on roadways adjacent to the high schools," he wrote.

Fines for violating the new law are $20 to $40 for the first offense, and $50 to $100 for multiple convictions within a year. The ban applies to all cellphone use, handheld or hands-free, except in emergencies.

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