Chelsea Ritts, 16, a junior year this year at Altoona Area High School, hopes to take her driver's test sometime this month and get her license.
"I've had my permit since last September," she said. "It's going really good, actually."
Like most teenagers, she looks forward to the day she can drive herself so she doesn't have to depend on anyone else for a ride.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Altoona Area High School driving instructor Dave Gahagan watches junior Kimberly Letscher, 17, release the parking brake.
Before she took a driver's education class last semester at the high school, she was a little nervous about watching her speed on the road and worrying that she would drive too fast over the speed limit.
She also learned to avoid distractions like cell phones when she drives but, instead, pay close attention to everything around her.
"I scan everywhere and make sure I know what's going on," Ritts said.
That's one of the worries that is on the mind of Kimberly Long, 18, a 2012 graduate of Altoona. She admits to being a little nervous about getting her permit this summer and starting the process of getting a driver's license.
"When I start driving, I have to be aware about what's going on around me," she said. "I think our [driver's ed] class really helped me out, and I think I'll be a better driver."
That's certainly the hope of John Franco who teaches driver's education at Altoona. He doesn't want any student to become a statistic in the growing number of traffic crashes.
In 2010, the latest year that crash data is available from PennDOT, a large percentage of vehicle crashes involved teen drivers. Male drivers ages 16 to 20 were involved in 15,797 crashes while female drivers the same age were involved in 12,061 crashes.
Those numbers were one of the reasons state lawmakers passed the new teen driving law that took effect in December. According to those who supported the legislation, junior drivers will receive more comprehensive training and have fewer distractions by limiting the number of passengers that can be in the vehicle.
The law placed more requirements on the licensing process and increased the number of hours a teen must spend behind the wheel before the driving test to 65, including nighttime and poor weather driving. It also restricts drivers in the first six months of a junior driver's license to not have more than one passenger under age 18 who is not an immediate family member unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. If a teen's driving record is clear after six months, he or she may have up to three passengers under 18, but drivers and passengers under 18 must wear seat belts.
Franco thinks the new law is only another step to help keep teen drivers safe along with common sense and good training.
"Every little bit helps," he said of the changes.
Franco believes teens now are at more of a disadvantage than drivers a few decades ago because of the volume of traffic they face every day.
"There is so much more traffic on the roads now. The roads are so overcrowded," he said, adding that even minor fender-benders now cost considerably more than they did a generation ago.
The other problem that teens today face is being surrounded by more distractions that can take attention away from the road. Texting, cell phones, music, talking to friends - they all take away the focus and concentration needed to drive safely, he said.
The average teen sends more than 100 texts a day, according to a recent Nielsen report, which experts say equals one text nearly every 8.5 minutes of time a teen is awake.
Teens don't have the experience to multi-task and handle more distractions while they should be concentrating on the road, its conditions and traffic around them, Franco said. He also reminds students that two factors that often play into crashes - driving at night and driving with other teens in the car - can be avoided if possible.
In the meantime, teens have to be more alert and aware than ever when they are behind the wheel, he said. Although he knows his students get tired of hearing it, Franco continues to stress that teens focus on their driving.
"I hope it makes them be more cautious," he said. "As a parent and an adult, I think we need to keep badgering them about it: that they do know they need to concentrate and pay attention to their driving. It's a never-ending battle."
And at the end of the day, even when his own kids got frustrated with him repeating it, Franco said he's just thankful they survived those first few years of driving until they got enough experience behind the wheel to be successful and safe drivers.