The number of teen drivers in Pennsylvania is at a 10-year low and there are fewer crashes involving teen drivers than there were in 2009, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Locally, the number of teen drivers in Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Montour counties does not follow state trends; while the data still show fewer drivers ages 16 to 19 since 2009, it is not at a 10-year low. PennDOT recently observed Teen Driver Safety Week in Pennsylvania from Oct. 21-25.

"Unfortunately we do not have data on why teens may wait or may abstain from getting a driver’s license," said PennDOT spokesman Craig Yetter. "PennDOT’s focus is ensuring those that choose to get a driver’s license, regardless of their age, understand traffic rules and are capable of operating a vehicle safely."

A 2016 study by the University of Michigan shows that the percentage of 16-year-old drivers in the U.S. decreased from 46.2 percent in 1983 to 24.5 percent in 2014.

In 2018, there were 389,868 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 compared to 433,613 in 2008. The highest in the last 10 years was in 2010 with 453,401 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 and the second-lowest was in 2014 with 394,155 drivers.

In 2018, there were 4,280 drivers in the Valley between ages 16 and 19. The 10-year low was 4,111 set in 2015 and the high was 5,190 set in 2010, the first of two consecutive years with more than 5,100 teen drivers in the Valley.

Drivers can get their driver's license at age 16 after six months with a learner's permit. In 2018, drivers age 16 represented 41,995 drivers in the commonwealth compared to 68,468 in 2009. The highest in the last 10 years was in 2011 with 72,646 drivers age 16.

Zach Walburn, 25, of Northumberland, waited until this year to learn to drive. He has his learner's permit now.

"Partially, it's because driving scares the daylight out of me, and partially because some of the places I've lived I could thrive without it because of good public transportation," said Walburn. "Moving back here to Pennsylvania, and realizing that if I ever wanted personal freedom on the scale I need I'd have to knuckle down and make it happen."

Walburn said he believes many people have hesitations about driving.

"We all get nervous thinking about what could happen in an accident or if we hit someone," he said. "Not many people take it as far as I did, though."

Driver's education classes

Some schools in Pennsylvania offer driver education as part of their curriculum. There are also third-party vendors who offer driver skills training in addition to driver education classes for a fee. PennDOT supports numerous local community outreach programs aimed at teen driver safety. Several years ago, PennDOT partnered with the PA DUI Association to develop a resource guide that contains safe driving-related resources that are available in the commonwealth, said Yetter.

Schools such as Midd-West offer driver's education, but not behind-the-wheel training. In order to get an insurance discount, students must take 30 hours of classroom time through the school year, according to instructor Brian Beward. 

The class consists of basic maintenance and instructions, but students do not drive, he said.

Midd-West junior Cloey Werger, 16, of Beavertown, said she wants to get her license so she can get to work.

"I've been looking, but I want to get my license before I get a job," she said. "Everybody is usually pretty excited about getting their license.

Jess Newell, of Selinsgrove, has been teaching her second child, 16-year-old Jack Newell, how to drive since May. 

"Most of my friends are excited to drive," said Jack Newell. "I didn't need it, but I am looking forward to the freedom. I won't have to wait until one of my parents is free."

The teen wants to drive to his job at Dairy Queen, to school and to hang out with friends.

"In our area, I feel like you need your license," said Jess Newell. "It's rural. If you don't get your license, you won't get around."

CSIU program 

The Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, based in Milton, offers a driver education program that consists of a 30-hour online theory course and behind-the-wheel instruction. The CSIU Driver Education program serves 16 school districts and Columbia-Montour Area Vocational-Technical School. School districts include: Benton, Berwick, Bloomsburg, Central Columbia, Danville, Lewisburg, Midd-West, Mifflinburg, Millville, Milton, Mount Carmel, Selinsgrove, Shamokin, Shikellamy, Southern Columbia and Warrior Run.

The instructors are certified by PennDOT in the End of Course Skills Test Program. This means the behind-the-wheel instruction includes 6 hours of in-car training and during the last hour of training, instructors can conduct the driver license test.

On Thursday, Beward, who also works as a CSIU instructor, was giving Rockell Keister, 16, of Mifflinburg, her final test around the Mifflinburg High School. 

"Driving is a privilege," said Keister. "Not everybody's going to be able to drive. You have to actually know what you're doing and not just think you're going to pass."

Keister said a lot of her friends are waiting to drive because they're scared to be on the road. She knows college freshmen who are waiting to get their licenses.

"I honestly couldn't tell you why," said Keister. "I think it's mostly the other drivers and they're scared of accidents."

Beward said it does seem like students are waiting to get their license.

"I think a lot of it is there is more of a fear factor today," he said. "I think that many of them wait because of the money reason. It is not cheap to get a license, have insurance and go through the process. A lot of them are waiting until they have enough money saved up, or a job in order to get their license."

The CSIU program was implemented in the early '90s. There are five instructors, including Beward.

Last year, 432 students used the program, which is down over the last five years when it used to be more than 1,000, according to CSIU Leadership Coordinator Katherine Vastine.

At one point, schools helped pay a portion of the program, but now only Bloomsburg helps students pay for it. The cost is $120 for the 30-hour program and $360 for behind the wheel, she said.

Crash data

Teen drivers are involved in fewer crashes than they were in 2009. Last year, they were involved in 17,364 crashes compared to 22,390 in 2009, the highest of the last decade. The lowest year was in 2014 with 16,642 drivers.

Of those crashes in 2018, 74 involved a death — the lowest in a decade — compared to 138 involving a death in 2009. The highest year in the last 10 years was in 2012 with 143 crashes involving a fatality.

"There are numerous factors that come into play with crashes involving teen drivers," said Yetter. "Most teen driver crashes are due to driver error caused by inexperience and distraction."

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the highest crash risk for teen drivers occurs in the first six months and 1,000 miles of driving, said Yetter. 

Key contributing factors in these crashes were: driver distractions (14,391 or 17 percent); driving too fast for conditions (30,010 or 35 percent); driver inexperience (9,242 or 11 percent) and improper or careless turning (13,314 or 16 percent), said Yetter.

Crashes involving teen drivers in the Valley have fluctuated over the last ten years, with a high of 316 in 2011 and a low of 243 in 2014. The same for fatal crashes, which ranged from eight in 2010 to one in 2017. Teen drivers were involved in 278 crashes in the Valley in 2018, four of them fatal accidents.

The risk of a crash involving any of these factors can be reduced through practice, limiting the number of passengers riding with a teen driver, obeying all rules of the road, and using common sense, according to PennDOT.

“Parents can encourage safe driving behavior by consistently modeling good habits behind the wheel, starting long before their teen gets a learner’s permit,” said Col. Robert Evanchick, commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police. “We can each do our part to set a positive example by eliminating distractions, driving defensively, and ensuring everyone in the car is buckled up.”

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