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Teen Driver Education Is Taking a New Course : Schools: Budget cuts have moved responsibility to private institutions, which can charge $245. Some promise class completion in a week or less.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teen-agers in increasing numbers may be hitting the streets of Orange County without behind-the-wheel training and or even driver’s licenses, some teachers and state officials say.

“What you are seeing now is a lot of illegal driving,” said Richard Fischl, a longtime teacher of driver education at Anaheim’s Katella High School.

This is one of the most distressing results, critics contend, of the loss of driver education’s once-lofty status in public high schools. Once a required course for graduation, driver preparation is being squeezed out of the public school curriculum by a shortage of funding and competition from academic courses. The issue was underscored 10 days ago when the California Supreme Court refused to hear a case seeking to restore the funding.

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In the process, much of the responsibility for teaching safe driving has been shifted over the past five years from public education to private driving schools.

And those private driving schools tend to compete for enrollees primarily by price and the speed with which their courses can be completed.

The downgrading of driver education--a subject intended to preserve the lives of California’s 791,000 teen drivers and those they encounter on the state’s highways--is worrisome to some educators and insurers, who note that teen drivers already are a high-risk group for accidents.

“I’m concerned we are preparing kids for Stanford but they may not survive the summer to get there,” said Barny Schur, consultant coordinator for driver education with the California Department of Education.

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The number of new licenses issued each year to 16- and 17-year-olds has declined in California, from 223,208 in 1988 to 189,838 in 1994.

Mary Crystal, regional manager for Western Insurance Information Service, said teen-age drivers currently account for 5.1% of all licensed drivers in the nation, but 13.2% of all accidents and 11.8% of all fatal accidents.

Insurance rates reflect teens’ high-risk status. Dawn Billings, a spokeswoman for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., said 16-year-old girls pay 35% to 55% more than adults for car insurance and 16-year-old boys pay 170% to 225% more, reflecting state guidelines for rating beginning drivers and the insurance company’s claims experience with that age group.

The decline of driver education statewide is traced to the withdrawal of state funding for behind-the-wheel driver training in 1990.

The state Supreme Court recently refused to hear a constitutional challenge to the loss of the funds, which for many years had been collected from traffic ticket assessments. It was the latest setback in a series of failed attempts by an association of driver education teachers to force the state to support driver education.

State law requires 16- to 18-year-olds to complete at least 30 hours of classroom work and six hours of driving instruction before obtaining a driver license.

But the withdrawal of state support prompted strapped school districts to ax their campus-based driver training programs. This has forced students to attend private driving schools, which charge $110 to $245.

Public school officials say some low-income students manage to scrape together the tuition by taking part-time jobs, while others resolve to wait until they are 18, when they won’t need a training certificate to get their licenses.

But some public school teachers say students from lower-income families have confessed that they intend to drive, with or without a license.

“Juvenile courts are telling us they are finding more teens driving without licenses than ever before,” said Joseph Symkowick, general counsel for the State Department of Education.

State law still requires classroom instruction in driver education--but not behind-the-wheel training--to be offered free in public high schools.

But even these textbook classes in recent years have become far less accessible.

A decade ago driver education was a requirement for high school graduation everywhere in Orange County. That is still the case in some school districts, such as Santa Ana Unified, Garden Grove Unified and Fullerton Joint Union.

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But in many other districts, driver education has been demoted to an elective course, sometimes offered only outside regular school hours. In Tustin Unified School District, drivers education is offered only in summer school.

Some school officials say students, when given a choice, are more eager to take required subjects and honors courses that will make their transcripts more attractive to college admissions committees.

Students whose parents can afford it are going to private schools for classroom and behind-the-wheel training.

About 20 private driving schools do business in Orange County, advertising in the Yellow Pages and school newspapers. Some promise teens they can complete classroom and road training in a week or less.

Tiffany Chapman, who expects to apply for a driver’s license this month when she turns 16, said she took a package deal with a private driving school because she couldn’t fit driver education into her schedule at Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills.

“A friend and I looked through the flyers and the Yellow Pages and chose the cheapest,” she said.

Larry Collier, who teaches driver education at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, said he doubts that private schools can successfully teach all that a teen driver needs to know in a shortened course. “There is nothing really in-depth. That would be impossible,” he said.

Collier said a private school comes to his campus to teach driver training, for which each student pays $110, a rock-bottom price in the industry.

Nonetheless, he said, behind-the-wheel training now is taken by only one-third of the Saddleback students who enrolled when such classes were free. Those who decline, he said, often are among Santa Ana’s poor minorities.

“We had a very democratic program at one time and one of the best programs the state offered,” Collier said. “I would like to see the state funding come back but I don’t think it ever will.”


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