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ND gets low grade for teen drivers

Police and educators say preparation, experience and weather are the main reasons why North Dakota teens have some of the nation's highest rates of car accidents and moving violations.

Police and educators say preparation, experience and weather are the main reasons why North Dakota teens have some of the nation’s highest rates of car accidents and moving violations.

“Inexperience is always an issue,” said Jamestown Police Chief Scott Edinger. “Ridiculously low fines for traffic violations in North Dakota also does not offer much as a deterrent.”

North Dakota has the most violations for teens texting while driving in the country and has the second-highest teen driver fatality rate with 1.5 deaths per 100,000 population, according to a May study by CarInsurance.com. The national rate is 0.5 per 100,000.

The study lists the safest states for teen driving as Massachusetts, Maryland and Alaska, and the most dangerous as Montana, North Dakota, Louisiana and South Dakota.

The study ranks North Dakota in second behind South Dakota for having the least effective graduated driving laws -- the laws that allow restricted driving permits at age 14 with parental supervision to learn on the road.

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Driving at a very young age presents issues of cognitive ability and skills that are not as ready to develop as in older teens, Edinger said.

The North Dakota Safety Council reported a 3.3 percent decrease in the number of teen drivers involved in North Dakota crashes from 2009 through 2014. However, teen drivers were still involved in 17.7 percent of all North Dakota crashes in 2014.

Car-deer collisions, gravel and sudden dead-end roads present other hazards, Edinger said. Rain, snow and ice create slippery surfaces that are also factors in crashes, he said.

Bill Nold, principal of Jamestown High School, said the school’s summer driver’s education elective is valuable but only 15 to 25 percent of students take the elective course. The rest are either not interested in driving, waiting until after age 16 when the class is not required, or taking private driving lessons.

“I wish states could afford to fund mandatory driver education for all students,” Nold said.

Cheryl Sunderland, the Jamestown High School’s driver’s education instructor,said she agrees with the push to make driver’s education a part of school curriculum. The private driving schools offer six hours compared to 42 in the schools, she said.

“They are just doing the behind-the-wheel portion and are not getting as much knowledge,” she said.

Sunderland said driver’s education is about getting students better prepared for the road to make better decisions. There is more background from the North Dakota Driver's Teacher Association curriculum than from learning alone, she said, with more awareness on distracted driving and avoiding risky situations.

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“The parents will do the best job that they can, but with the curriculum, we give the kids a better background on the driving,” she said.

“They just don’t have enough practice time,” she said. “They need to have hundreds of hours.”

Dave Klinkhammer, owner of Xcell Driving School in Fargo, said the insurance company study needs some perspective when North Dakota is compared to states that don’t license drivers until age 18, or do not have the same weather and road conditions.

“I train 300 kids a year and in talking to them one-on-one, the last thing they want to do is get into an accident or get a ticket,” Klinkhammer said. “The majority are pretty good.”

The private driving schools offer more hours behind the wheel, he said, and spend more time on the areas they need to work on, from parking to city streets to the interstate. The only requirement is the student must have passed the written examination and have a learner’s permit to start road instruction.

Increasing the requirements for teens would mean that more students will wait until age 16 to get their license without having to go through the training, he said. That could discourage preparation and make the roads more dangerous.

“In my opinion my clients do a wonderful job and score higher than average,” he said. “I can’t adjust attitude, but I can show them how to be good driver.”

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