Anyone driving on the road in Santa Fe can attest to how bad some of the city’s drivers are. No one seems to use turn signals, and drivers pull in front of other cars without looking.
Some place the blame on the state’s driver’s education programs, a few of which recently got into trouble. Riel Anne Marion Bellow-Jackson, a senior at Santa Fe Preparatory School, took driver’s ed in 2010 at the now-defunct Teens Luv Cars Defensive Drivers Ed School. She says it didn’t teach her much.
“You don’t even learn how to drive in a roundabout,” she tells SFR. “I’ve never seen anyone do it in Santa Fe properly.”
Sarah Simis, another Prep senior, remembers her driver’s test at TLC lasting just 10 minutes and not requiring her to properly complete simple tasks like parallel parking.
“Honestly, I learned more from my parents in one hour of driving around town,” Simis tells SFR.
But in some areas, New Mexico has seen vast improvements. Ever since the introduction of a “graduated license system” in 2000, the state’s teen driving crashes have decreased by almost half. Despite the high-profile accident that occurred here in 2008, teen driving deaths have generally decreased as well. Franklin Garcia, chief of the New Mexico Department of Transportation’s Safety Bureau, attributes the drop in collisions to the graduated licensing law.
Under the law, any 15-year-old enrolled in driver’s ed is issued a permit for six months. Permit holders must complete 50 hours of driving time with a licensed adult and seven hours with an instructor before gaining a provisional license, which generally limits them to driving with only one teenaged passenger. Drivers who hold provisional licenses for a year and have no legal trouble are eligible for full driver’s licenses.
NMDOT, which oversees more than 300 driving schools across the state, vets concerns parents have about any school. It also sends a staffer to the driving schools once a year to audit the classes.
“We do investigate and follow up on complaints anyone would have,” Garcia tells SFR.
Complaints eventually led to the shutdown of TLC in December 2010 for employing uncertified teachers, failing to enforce training requirements and not keeping records properly.
This past June, David Lopez and two others started Drive 505. Before, Lopez worked for another Santa Fe driving school—he wouldn’t say which—that wasn’t following through with the seven hours of supervised driving required for each student. At his previous job, Lopez says, the students, including his niece, were receiving licenses without properly earning them.
“I felt like the curriculum was oversimplified, like kids didn’t have to work,” Lopez tells SFR.
Still, Lopez’ current class hasn’t erased the perception that driver’s ed in New Mexico is a joke, according to some students. Ian McClaugherty, a sophomore at Prep who attended Drive 505 last month, says a lot of the classroom time was spent “not doing much.”
“I thought David Lopez was a great guy; he really knew a lot,” McClaugherty tells SFR. “It’s just, in the classroom, there’s only so much you can do.”
Each student is required by state law to sit through 30 hours of classroom instruction, which can seem tedious to teens. At least six of those hours must be devoted to DWI-prevention lessons, which Lopez says is his favorite part of the course. Rather than giving out bullet points on drinking and driving, Lopez spends much of the required hours telling stories about how drugs and alcohol destroyed his friends.
“Kids relate to the stories,” he says. “They can tell it’s real.”
Others, like Jacob Dannenberg, a Prep sophomore who took Drive 505 in September, say Lopez’ stories can go on without focus. He also says his final test was a crossword puzzle. Lopez, for his part, says he’s working on developing a more hands-on approach like teaching students how to change oil and fill gas in the field.
Even then, however, there are those who believe that driving laws—particularly in a rural state renowned for DWI fatalities—should be stricter.
“It was very surprising when our oldest got a permit on the first day [of class],” Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, tells SFR, referring to his son, who attended TLC three years ago.
Getting a permit that early is standard practice; NMDOT says it gives teenagers a chance to learn from day one.
Wirth, who went to NMDOT with concerns about some of the schools before TLC was closed, helped pass a bill during the last legislative session that expands the amount of time teenagers must hold onto their provisional licenses if they’re caught with alcohol minors or talking on a cell phone while driving.