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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008

Teen Driving Privileges Are Key to Employment and Safety

Driver’s education and legal assistance will help

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If you’re a teenager in the city of Milwaukee, your odds of having a valid driver’s license are pretty slim. According to new research, only 29% of 16- and 17-year-olds in the city had either a probationary license or temporary permit. Those numbers drop to 10% in inner-city Milwaukee neighborhoods.

Contrast that to the Milwaukee County suburbs, where half of 16- to 17-year-olds have a valid license or permit.

That disparity continues into early adulthood, especially for teens who had their driving privileges revoked— mainly for juvenile offenses such as truancy and underage drinking, or for failure to pay fines.

Only 16% of inner-city teens with suspensions and revocations were able to earn a valid driver’s license by the time they turned 25, while up to 47% of suburban teens with suspensions and revocations eventually earned their privilege to drive by the time they turned 25.

The lack of a valid driver’s license affects far more than an individual’s ability to get from Point A to Point B. It impacts public safety, since many unlicensed drivers did not attend driver’s education before getting behind the wheel and therefore never learned the rules of the road.

But the lack of a valid driver’s license also is linked to employability, since many jobs require either a valid license or, at the very least, a lack of outstanding fines and legal issues. The lack of a job— even an entry-level job that’s appropriate for a teen—means that the fines still go unpaid, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of unemployment and a lack of a driver’s license.

“It’s first and foremost a safety issue,” said Nichole Yunk, director of the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability. “But there’s also an economic component.”

Some Solutions

The driver’s license data, compiled by Lois Quinn and John Pawasarat at the Employment and Training Institute at UW-Milwaukee, highlights the importance of educating teen drivers and helping them to recover their driving privileges once they’ve been lost.

The high number of unlicensed young people can be traced to the lack of state funding for driver’s education during the Doyle administration. Now, local school districts must come up with the funds, or charge students more money for the program. This shortsighted thinking on the part of the state government will likely result in more accidents, injuries and deaths due to the lack of driver’s education.

Milwaukee Public Schools drastically reduced the number of driver’s ed offerings in the city, and teens who wanted to learn how to drive were forced to pay for lessons at commercial driving schools, which run as high as $300. That’s beyond the means of most city teens and their families, so they went without it.

But the lack of a license didn’t deter teens from driving. Instead, they would rack up a number of citations for operating without a license (OWL), which could eventually increase the time of their suspensions.

There have been some positive signs for Milwaukee teens, however. MPS Board member Michael Bonds was able to secure more funding for driver’s education, which is now offered at six locations for $150 and run by the Milwaukee Recreation Department. (Those who have outstanding fines cannot sign up.)

What’s more, the COA Youth & Family Centers launched an innovative program in which teens can learn how to drive—for free—as long as they maintain good grades and perform community service. Yunk said the results have been so positive that she’d like to see the COA program become an ongoing opportunity through MPS.

But Yunk said the key is to fully fund driver’s education through a stable state-based source. Her organization and their allies have proposed adding $1 to the vehicle license fee to pay for driver’s education for low-income youth, which would bring in $5.5 million a year. They would like the proposed fee to be included in the state budget next year so that low-income teens around the state can learn how to drive properly as soon as possible.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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