Getting a driver's license is a rite of passage for nearly every teenager. But doing so puts them at risk of becoming a deadly statistic.
Traffic accident are the leading cause of death for American teens. No other hazard even comes close to claiming as many teenage lives. There are many factors involved, but the sad truth is teenagers are dying to drive.
We've seen the consequences right here in Northwest Florida. In June, a 19 year old Bay County teenager died after crashing her car on State Highway 77. A month later, a 17 year old was killed on the same roadway when he lost control of his car and slammed into a tree. In September, three Sneads High School students died on a dirt road in Jackson County. The tragedies affected entire communities.
The statistics are frightening:
More than 1 in 5 teens is involved in a crash in their first year of driving.
Each year, nearly 6,000 teens are killed in motor vehicle accidents nationwide.
144 Florida teens died in traffic crashes in 2011.
Teen drivers represent about 7% of the nation's licensed drivers, but are involved in nearly 15% of all fatal crashes.
Most high schools in the area no longer offer driver's education courses, so Joseph Gorton, 18, took matters into his own hands. He recently completed a driver training course at My Florida Training Center in Panama City. The course includes classroom training and "hands on" instruction.
"If they are having to pass somebody, they know what to do," said Suzy Hernandez, the center's owner. "We expose them to lane changing, intersections, and the higher speeds [of] sixty five miles an hour."
On a sunny afternoon in October, Ashton Wellborn maneuvered a car through cones set up in a nearby parking lot. The 16 year old enrolled in the course at the insistence of her parents. "I've been in two accidents already and so they wanted me to take it to make sure that I was safe," she said.
"It's an ongoing process," said Hernandez. "Driving requires a lot of skills and ability and that comes with time and experience."
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen is planning to implement a Teen Driver Challenge program, developed by the Florida Sheriff's Association, in early 2013. "Kids need experience... I think they need to understand what can happen and how fast it can happen,"said McKeithen.
Deputy Timothy Bowen is in charge of the program, which will be free of charge to qualified teens. It will feature a combination of classroom instruction and time in a car -- on a closed course -- with a deputy alongside. "The ultimate goal is always to save lives or reduce crashes... [to] keep these kids out of these situations," said Bowen.
Meanwhile, technology is helping parents keep tabs on their teenage drivers, even when they aren't in the car with them. Learn more about that in Part 2 of this special report.