Car lessons yield frustration Instruction: With driver education courses dropped by almost all schools, neither youths nor parents are happy.


Because most Maryland high schools have dropped driver education from their course offerings, parents and local driving schools are showing teen-agers how to parallel-park and complete three-point turns -- and it's driving everyone up a wall.

Youths wish they could learn during schooltime, when it's convenient, free and taught by someone other than their jittery parents -- many of whom aren't loving the experience either.

But budgets and time constraints have left no choice.

"The school day has become so crowded that school systems are really pressed to the gills with the basics, all the graduation requirements, the testing programs," said Owen Crabb, senior staff specialist in the Division of Instruction with the State Department of Education.

In the past decade, driver education has been eliminated from the curricula of all but four of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions: Allegany, Calvert, Garrett and Prince George's counties.

And this leaves Jeff Eyet of Crofton, who graduated from Arundel Senior High on May 30, feeling cheated. He moved to Maryland in 1995 from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he would have taken the course at school instead of at a driving school. His course spanned 10 evenings of three hours each.

"If you play sports or any other activities, that really puts a cramp on your study time," he said.

His Pennsylvania friends, he said, also "had a more enjoyable experience because they were taking a class with their friends, people they had other classes with, whereas here it's people from other schools and so forth, and it was more of a task than it was just fun."

Chalk it up to state cutbacks.

In the 1970s, driver education joined history and biology on high school schedules -- taught from a variety of texts and by driving simulators and cars on the road. The state reimbursed counties $65 for each driving student. That dropped in the 1980s to $35, but by 1988 funding had dried up.

Now, 17-year-old Shara Hamlin learns to make left turns and merge into highway traffic not at Howard County's Wilde Lake High School, but with her father, who has endured weekend trips around their Columbia neighborhood since Shara got her learner's permit April 15.

Recently, a lesson got out of hand.

"He let me go to the grocery store," she recalled. "And I think I was going too fast, so he was kind of freaking out a little bit. He was like, 'Slow down, Shara, slow down!' He was about to take the steering wheel from me."

It was lead-footed Shara's fault, says Forest Hamlin.

"She has a tendency to use both feet," he said. He wants her to be safe: "If I ever see her speeding," he vowed, "I'm going to take her car away from her for a month."

Shara's friend Nailah Jackson, 16, has gone another route: a commercial driving school. Instructors pick her up at her Columbia home for 1 1/2 -hour jaunts. She doesn't know her teacher's name and has to wait for an appointment. With written lessons, driving practice and a road test -- both required by the state -- she pays about $300.

Learning in school would be much better, she said. "Instead of doing it on your own time, you do it during school hours," she said. "And also, you don't have to pay for it. It's just more convenient to have it in school."

Hers is a common complaint, Crabb says.

Nailah's mother, Francine Jackson, remembers the convenience of taking driver education at Coolidge High in Washington and what she called "a great driving experience" -- kind of like a joy ride. She learned with two other students who sat in the back while another student sat behind the wheel.

"I don't think the driving classes here are that way. I don't think you'd have the group experience," she said.

Group experiences are available in Baltimore County, the only one in Maryland offering driving in its nighttime adult education program. Twenty to 30 students per class, most still in high school, pay $155 for three hours behind the wheel plus 12 hours with a simulator, and 30 hours of classwork, which includes tests, videos and lectures on reading road signs, controlling the car and the effects of drugs and alcohol on a driver.

It's cheaper than driving schools. One, the Arundel Driving School in Annapolis, charges $275 for six hours of driving and 30 hours in a classroom.

About 90 percent of that school's students are in high school, and they make better students than jumpier adults who've put off learning to drive for years, says the school's president, Frankie Gilliam.

"Most of them will pick it up," she said, "if they have good coordination."

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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