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Teen drivers in Lakewood Ranch focus on safety on the road

Drivers education instructor says advanced technology in cars can be a hindrance for new drivers.

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When East County’s Emilie McKenna turned 15 and was able to get her learner’s permit, her mother, Nicola McKenna, was terrified.

Nicola McKenna, who is from the United Kingdom, was used to children getting their learner’s permits at the age of 17. When she found out her daughter could get a learner’s permit as young as 15 years old, Nicola McKenna was shocked.

“I don’t think that’s old enough to be driving,” Nicola McKenna said. “Even though she’s passed a test, I still think she’s too young. It’s not because of her ability to drive ... they’re just still kids. They might think they’re adults, but they’re not. They don’t have those cognitive behaviors to be able to make those fast decisions right when they’re under a lot of stress. That’s my biggest fear: Can she react fast enough when something goes wrong?” 

During drivers education courses, Tom Wyar, the drivers’ education teacher at Lakewood Ranch High School, teaches his students the basics of driving and reminds them of the dangers of being distracted on the road.

New drivers are reminded of the importance of being safe on the road during National Teen Driver Safety Week, which was Oct. 17-23.

Wyar told a story about how quickly things can go wrong, no matter the age of a driver.

“The only scary situation we once had, was when a student mistook the gas for the brake,” Wyar said. “We were parking at a building, so we could switch student drivers. The student drove great, but as we were parking, we had a mishap, At the very end, as we were pulling up to the parking spot, the student hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. Luckily, I was quick enough to press my instructor brake, saving us from driving into a side of a building.

“So, you are not fully finished driving until the car is in park and the ignition is turned off. Simple accidents can happen even when you’re not on a roadway.”

Students in drivers’ education classes at Lakewood Ranch High School spend the first three weeks of the program going over road rules before they spend the rest of the semester actually driving.

Wyar said the biggest change for drivers over the past few years is texting, which is illegal. Wyar said it is more of a distraction than talking on the phone.

“One thing I tell the kids is they’re the targeted age group for texting and driving but the reality is it’s not just the teens,” Wyar said. “You see everybody on the road texting and driving. What I’m trying to instill in the young drivers is don’t text and drive but also you have to defend yourself out on that road because there’s so many people out there texting, running red lights and speeding.”

Teens can sharpen their skills in the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Teen Driver Challenge, which is a free 10-hour program for Manatee County teens to learn about driving distractions, how their vehicle works, and how not get into accidents.

Participants use their own vehicles so they can practice with the car they’ll be using on the road. They spend the morning in the classroom learning the do’s and don’ts of driving followed by instruction on the driving pad.

“Being a teen driver, they feel like they kind of went through a little mini road course, and a majority of them are extremely thankful for that opportunity,” said Randy Warren, the public information officer for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

With the different technological advances in cars such as rear view cameras and blind spot sensors, Wyar said learning the basics of driving is crucial.

East County's Emilie McKenna has to follow rules her parents put in place for driving to ensure her safety. Courtesy photo.
East County's Emilie McKenna has to follow rules her parents put in place for driving to ensure her safety. Courtesy photo.

“What I tell the students is the camera is there to assist you, not replace you,” Wyar said.

Wyar teaches students they still need to turn and look through the back window when going into reverse or look over their shoulders when changing lanes.

“Regardless of the technology you have in your car, you always look over your shoulder on a lane change to check for that blind spot,” Wyar said.

Warren said accidents happen when drivers become complacent.

Nicola McKenna had her daughter practice on their long driveway so they wouldn’t have to worry about other drivers.

“To begin with, her confidence was not really great,” Nicola McKenna said. “She would be more nervous about the other people than her own driving. I think as she became more mature and more comfortable with being behind the wheel, things started to improve a lot.”

As more people move to the Lakewood Ranch area, McKenna, Warren and Wyar all said it’s important for new drivers to be acclimated to driving in highly populated areas.

“We want these kids to understand that driving is something they have to take seriously and paying attention, being patient and obeying the law is going to dramatically reduce their chances of being in an accident, being injured or, even worse, killed as a result of their own mistakes or somebody else’s,” Warren said.


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