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PARENTING : Gearing Up : Most teen-agers are eager to drive, but parents are caught between welcoming the help and worrying.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Roberta G. Wax writes regularly for The Times. </i>

Danielle Minsky, 16, of Northridge couldn’t wait to get her driver’s license--it was her ticket to freedom. Her mother, Michele, on the other hand, saw it as an indefinite sentence to a life of stress.

When children start to drive, she says, “parents lose a lot of peace of mind. Before, you knew exactly where they were. Now, you have more to worry about.”

Nevertheless, most parents want their 16-year-olds to be able to drive, according to Tom Richards, who has been teaching driver’s education on and off since 1969 at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.

Among other benefits, having another driver in the house relieves mom and dad from being a slave to a teen-ager’s schedule. It also gives teen-agers an added measure of responsibility.

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“I think most parents know their kids and know if they’re responsible enough to drive,” said Jean McCalla of Northridge, who is training her third child, Kevin, 15, behind the wheel.

With each of her children, before lessons began, she assessed their reliability, attention span and maturity. She said Kevin, who recently got his learner’s permit, pays attention, is trustworthy in other areas of his life and is very aware on the road, so she is calm now as she lets him drive her on errands.

Another mom, who lives in North Hills but asked that her name not be used, wouldn’t let her daughter, now 28, drive until she was 17 because “she didn’t seem to know where the dangers were. She thought that everyone else would take care of things. Just because it’s a green light, you can’t automatically go.”

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Whatever a parent’s timetable may be, a teen-ager approaching driving age is often impatient to hit the road. Eileen Shuster, co-owner of Bob’s Driving School in Northridge, joked, “You know he’s ready when he doesn’t quit nagging you.”

She added: “When most of their friends are driving, when they show an interest in the driving process, pay attention when you drive and ask why you are doing this or that,” these may be signs that it’s time to investigate driver’s ed.

Richard S. Ortega, who works full time as an RTD bus driver and has been teaching at Bob’s part time for about 12 years, said teen-agers are actually quicker studies in driving than older adults, who tire faster and have slower reflexes. Because teen-agers are “very motivated,” they take direction well and handle correction better. Adults like to see demonstrations before they get behind the wheel, he said, but teen-agers “learn by doing it.”

But if a student approaches driving “as if it were a game,” Ortega said, he knows they haven’t realized the full potential--or danger--of driving.

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Lack of concentration and lack of experience are what make teen-agers “slam into each other,” Richards said. Ortega agrees that behind-the-wheel practice time is vital. “We can teach them the basics in six hours, but they need to drive a little bit each day,” he said.

Teen-agers report that the scariest tasks they face as new drivers involve making left-hand turns--especially across oncoming traffic--and lane changes.

The prospect of navigating through a sea of speeding cars is, in fact, so intimidating to some teen-agers that they resist learning to drive at all.

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One Granada Hills youth explained that he just didn’t want the responsibility. “You always hear about accidents,” he said. “And there are some really bad drivers out there.”

His mother finally convinced him to take his driving test when he was 16 1/2, and now, a year later, he finally feels comfortable driving.

Parents can be most helpful to their children by serving as model drivers, said West Valley CHP traffic Officer Dave King.

“Parents must be as responsible as they want their children to be,” which means staying within the speed limit and obeying all traffic rules, said King, who often lectures to driver’s education classes.

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The three biggest dangers of driving, he emphasized, are speeding, speeding and speeding.

To set the tone for sensible driving, King advised, parents should tell youngsters “right off the bat that driving is not only a privilege from the state but from the parent.”

Rules of the Road

Although establishing driving rules for a teen-ager is an individual matter, here are some tips from parents, driving instructors and other experts:

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* Draw up a contract that lists driving rules, a teen-ager’s responsibilities, and the consequences should any rule be broken. Rules might cover common-sense taboos--no drinking and driving--as well as guidelines for car care: keeping it clean, filling the gas tank, etc. Consequences might include paying for all traffic fines and any damages incurred during an accident.

* Discuss car rules before handing over the keys.

* Have teen-agers post all driving plans and destinations in a prominent place.

* Ask them to phone home if plans change and they are going to be late.

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* Extend driving privileges in increments, initially limiting trips to school and back or allowing only daytime driving before granting after-dark privileges.

* Limit passengers to the number of seat belts a car has and stipulate that everyone buckles up before the engine starts.

* Link driving privileges to school work. If grades drop, confiscate the keys.

* Stress road courtesy, warning teen-agers not to get into altercations with other drivers.

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* Encourage new drivers to be security conscious, locking car doors, for example, especially at night.

* Discourage them from driving when they are angry, frustrated or crying.

* Make sure their friends know your driving rules.

Getting Started

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In California, minors may get a learner’s permit at age 15 if they are taking driver’s education. Indeed, they must have a permit before they get behind the wheel of an auto.

To qualify for a permit, applicants are required to take an eye exam and a written test. This is the same 46-question test on traffic laws and signs that all new drivers must pass with a score of 39 or better.

In order to drive with a learner’s permit, teen-agers must be accompanied by a California-licensed driver age 25 or older. At 16, provided they have had a permit for at least 30 days, completed driver’s education and six hours of driver’s training, and paid a $12 application fee, minors may take the driver’s test. They must repeat the written exam (if a year has passed since they first took it) and undergo a road test, which, in L.A. County, includes freeway driving.

To those who pass, the Department of Motor Vehicles issues a provisional, under-18 license, which can be taken away more easily than an over-18 license. Sufficient cause for revocation includes a range of offenses, from driving under the influence to habitual school truancy.

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To get either a learner’s permit or a driver’s license, a minor must have the signature of a parent or guardian, who must assume full financial responsibility. Any adult 18 or older may apply independently for a license.

Most public and private high schools still offer driver’s education (although funding is constantly in doubt). They no longer provide in-the-car driver’s training, which used to be paid for out of the state’s traffic penalty assessment fund. Now, students must take a private driver’s training course, available through state-licensed schools and costing about $120 or more.

A free driver’s handbook may be requested from the DMV by phone. Appointments for all exams, which are given at DMV offices, may also be made by phone.


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