Special Report: Waiting to Take the Wheel

Posted at: 11/26/2013 10:00 PM | Updated at: 11/26/2013 10:35 PM
By: Alan Hoglund
ahoglund@wdio.com

Whether it's volleyball, softball or basketball, Denfeld High School Senior Lexi Hill has a packed schedule.

"I play sports all year round," she told Eyewitness News.

Lexi said basketball season is an away season this year, meaning there are more games away than at home. She's hoping she'll be the one behind the wheel driving there.

Lexi is heading out on her second driving lesson. Todd William Nelson is her instructor. He's the owner of Champion School of Driving, and told us he's been giving driving lessons for about 17 years.

Lexi is older than she needs to be to drive. She's 17, while the minimum age to get a license in Minnesota is 16. But she said getting her license wasn't all that important until now.

"I didn't want to ask people for rides all the time," she said.

Those away games someone has to drive to are about to start. "I wanted to be able to drive myself home rather than ask people to get a ride home every day."

Nelson said slightly older students like Lexi are becoming more common. He says their average age is 17. That is a year older than required to get a license, and two years older than necessary to get an learner's permit.

During his lesson with Lexi, Nelson told us he teaches more than 100 students some months, depending on the season. He said about 1/3 are older than they need to be to get their licenses, which is more than three times as many as last year.

Why?

Nelson said busy schedules and the cost. "It costs a student $410 dollars to come through the program," he said.

That includes classroom and behind the wheel lessons.

Nelson said "they don't have to pay for it all at once but it's still a chunk of change."

Depending on how long teens wait, requirements to get a license change.

At the Champion School's Duluth office, Nelson's daughter, Bree Pedersen, explained that everyone under 18 has to spend 30 hours in a classroom setting. She said the "normal class size is anywhere between 15 and 25."

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety also mandates that they take six hours - three sessions - of behind the wheel lessons.

"There have been a couple students who take more than the three required behind the wheels," Pedersen said.

But when a teenager turns 18, classes and behind the wheel lessons are not required.

No matter what the age, before new drivers get a license they must hold a learners permit for a minimum of three months.

According to Nelson, years ago students could get a license within about two weeks of starting classes. In 1999, Nelson said the state began a three-stage system called Graduated Driver Licensing, or GDL.

Drivers in the learner's permit stage must have a licensed parent or guardian 21 or older with them. The new drivers are also barred from using the phone in the car.

The cell phone ban continues when drivers first get their license. In this probationary license stage, driving during the night the number of passengers in the car are limited.

Finally, the third stage is the unrestricted license.

Nelson said "it has given the student the time and experience they have to take to learn how to drive properly, be kind and courteous to others."

According to the state, the GDL system is designed to ease young drivers onto the road.

AAA says states with the system in place have seen a 38 percent decrease in fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds. They've also experienced a 40 percent drop in injury crashes.

"The more experience you get on the road the more you'll be able to deal with adverse driving conditions and your traffic load," Nelson said.

To meet a teen starting to get that experience as soon as possible, we meet up with Judy Rengo, the owner of the Academy of Driving.

"I get a little bit worn out after awhile," Rengo said.

She's on the road all the time. "If you put on 42,000 miles in 12, maybe 13 months I think that's a lot," she said.

That 42,000 mile figure breaks down to more than 3,200 miles each month. In the summer, Rengo said "I work six days a week 10 hours a day."

But Rengo said she's not seeing students delay like Nelson. We rode along as she drove to Carlton to pick up 15-year-old Alex Bodin.

On the schedule: "parallel parking, 90 degrees and a little bit of one ways," Rengo said.

Bodin, a football player, couldn't wait to have a little more freedom. He told us he'd been looking forward to driving since he was 14 years old.

"Just be able to go wherever I want when I have time," he said.

Alex did know a few people waiting. Not because of money or sports. "They're just too lazy. I don't know," he said.

But not Alex.

He had been practicing for months and months. Fast forward a couple of weeks and Rengo said Alex is now 16 with his license.

According to Nelson, our other new driver, Lexi, is doing wonderfully.

"Well you have seen her abilities. You've seen how she drives," he said.

With just one behind the wheel lesson to go, Lexi will be driving to and from her basketball games in no time.

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