Georgia’s Drivers Ed Program Stalled

Jasper, Georgia – Seeking to cut the toll of teenage car crashes, Georgia lawmakers passed a law three years ago promising public money to jump-start driver’s education courses across the state.

But so far the law’s promise of widespread driver’s education courses has rung hollow. Now the measure’s sponsor is having second thoughts and some of the bill’s most vocal supporters say they feel betrayed.

“It’s extremely frustrating. It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it,” said Alan Brown, who helped write the law after his 17-year-old son Joshua was killed in a 2003 car wreck. “We thought we were getting driver’s education in local school systems. We ended up getting a lot of talk and no action.

“You can imagine – I want to just scream.”

Adopted in 2005 on the urging of state Sen. Preston Smith, Joshua’s Law requires 16-year-olds to pass a driver’s education course offered by their schools or a private instructor to get a license. It also added a 5 percent surcharge on traffic tickets and other violations to pay for the courses, with the revenue to be distributed by the Georgia Driver’s Education Commission.

But driver’s ed classes are still mainly confined to places where local officials put up the majority of funding themselves. The commission hasn’t paid for them, partly because it hasn’t requested funds to do so.

The group requested only $2.7 million of the $11.9 million raised from the surcharge last year. Roughly $9 million that the group could have had was sent back into the general fund, where it was used for other programs.

And that’s just from last year’s budget. By Smith’s count, the surcharge has raised more than $20 million since it went into effect.

State lawmakers – accustomed to fending off inflated requests from state agencies – sound stunned that the group hasn’t even asked for the money.

“It has raised millions of dollars – millions of dollars – that hasn’t been spent,” state Rep. Alan Powell complained in a floor speech last week.

The commission’s leaders say they are trying to be good stewards and need time to develop a system to dole out the dollars. They point to the rising number of driver’s education students since the law was adopted: Some 47,000 students are taking the course, up from 10,000 in January 2007, according to the Department of Driver Services.

The funds helped purchase computers in 110 public libraries last year to assist students with the written part of the test. The money also funded grants in 35 high schools to buy equipment and materials for the courses.

“I know there’s demand out there amongst different high schools,” said Bob Dallas, the commission’s vice chairman and the director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “And if the money comes to us, I’d say let us go out and make sure every high school is aware of it and give them time to come up with a proposal.”

Pickens County High School in north Georgia is one place that benefited from a driver’s education grant. The county already pays most of the $200,000 bill to provide more than 130 students each semester with driver’s education courses, saving parents the expense of ponying up the roughly $450 fee that private instructors charge.

The school used a $90,000 state grant to buy five simulators that teach a student driver to handle situations that would give even the most experienced drivers fits.

One such student is Brandon Cantrell, who deftly avoided a car that almost sideswiped him, aggressive pedestrians and sudden darkness and fog. But when the lesson came to an end, he was disqualified because he crept over the 35 mph speed limit once too often.

“I’m not happy,” he sighed. “Gotta do it again.”

Assistant Principal Harold Culbreth smiled with approval.

“We understand the importance of practice,” he said. “And the more you practice, the better you’ll be.”

The commission’s leaders hope to expand the number of grants by submitting more than $9 million in requests to lawmakers.

“We created this foundation for how funding can be spent, we’ve shown there is a need based on $9.5 million requested by the schools and we’re committed to moving forward,” said Greg Dozier, chairman of the commission and the head of the Georgia Department of Driver Services.

Yet some of the bill’s most ardent supporters question the commission’s commitment.

Smith was irritated enough at the slow-moving bureaucracy to launch an aborted attempt to abolish the commission. He said he hasn’t yet seen the commission’s budget requests, and speculated that they are “intentionally failing to meet deadlines.”

“There’s still widespread consensus that we can have an effective system that’s affordable, accessible and available all over the state,” he said. “It’s just a much tougher battle than we anticipated.”

The commission hasn’t held a monthly meeting since November. Brown said when members do convene they ignore his pleas to be more aggressive.

“I go to those meetings,” said Brown, who is not a member. “And I sit there and tell them, ‘If you don’t ask for the money, you’re not going to get it, if you don’t submit a business plan, you’re never going to get the money.’ And they don’t.”

Commission member Beth Bridges said she has become disillusioned and frustrated with the group’s slow pace – particularly when she compares its progress to two other state panels she’s sat on.

“I just don’t understand why we haven’t done more,” said Bridges, a driving instructor from Douglas. “I feel like we haven’t lived up to our expectations.” –  Greg Bluestein, AP

License Suspension  Rules in Georgia.

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