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Deadly accident sheds light on teen driving habits

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Driving instructors are calling for changes to Manitoba’s driver education program after an accident killed one teen and sent four others to hospital earlier this month.

Abe Peters and Dane Wilson, who have a combined 50 years of experience training new drivers, say the 50 hours of in-class and in-car training students receive in school with professional instructors may not be enough to prepare them to get behind the wheel.

"I teach a lot of kids who’ve taken driver’s ed, and their parents, or even they, realize they need more (training after the program)," said Peters, who has run River Heights Driving School since 1974.

On Nov. 1, 17-year-old Kelvin High School student Julia Romanow was thrown from an SUV after it careened into a tree on Wellington Crescent near the St. James Bridge.

Four other teens, also Kelvin High School students, were taken to hospital with life-threatening and non-life threatening injuries. Speed was a factor and Romanow was likely not wearing a seatbelt, police have said. The 17-year-old driver has been charged with several counts of dangerous driving.

"It’s not stereotypical, but when you hear of a 17-year-old in an accident, speed and driver inexperience are the first things that come to mind," said Wilson, owner and instructor of Transcona-based Crossroads Driver Training.

"With the kid being 17, he probably just got his licence."

High school students are eligible to enrol in the province’s high school driver education program when they are 15-and-a-half years old. Students complete 34 hours of class instruction, along with eight hours of behind the wheel training and another eight hours of in-car observation.

Students must log a minimum of 24 additional hours with a supervising driver to earn their driver’s ed certificate, although the certificate is not required for students to take a road test for their intermediate licence.

Peters and Wilson say more training with professional instructors is often needed.

Wilson would like to see mandatory winter lessons so students can better learn how to manage loss of control situations, from slick conditions to speeding.

"None of the students nowadays get any kind of experience to be able to control the car when it goes into a loss of control situation," said Wilson, who has 26 years of traffic enforcement with Winnipeg police under his belt.

Young drivers often get into accidents because of speed, or other factors, as they feel the "pressure is off" as soon as they get their licence, Peters added.

"They don’t seem to pay enough attention and don’t realize the dangers and consequences that happen," Peters said. "Lots of times they get away with things — they speed, they’re texting. They don’t realize (the dangers) until something really bad happens."

Up to 13,000 students go through Manitoba Public Insurance’s driver’s ed program each year, MPI spokesman Brian Smiley said.

The program is based on the best practices of other jurisdictions and is ever-evolving, Smiley said, noting the program does offer winter sessions.

"The program changes as society changes," he said.

"Look at texting and driving. Ten years ago, that wasn’t really an issue. Now it is, and it’s certainly discussed at the driver’s ed level."

There’s no "silver bullet" to stop collisions and fatalities, Smiley added, but a trifecta of education, awareness and law enforcement are helping make city streets safer.

"Why do people speed? We all ask that question because the messaging is certainly out there," Smiley said.

"We deliver the safety messages the best we can. After that, you hope the drivers and passengers execute what they’ve learned."

Joe Buccini, who runs Frontier Driving Academy, said licensing requirements have improved since he got his licence 20 years ago.

"You pretty much went from getting the handbook to, if you were good enough, getting your licence two weeks later," said Buccini, 38, who teaches students both privately and through the driver’s ed program.

About 80% of Buccini’s clients are youth, though he notes age isn’t a factor when it comes to a student’s capacity to learn.

"The theory is great, and there is a lot done to prepare them to drive," he said.

"At the end of the day, driving is a skill. You hope people will continue practicing. Some people won’t and will only do the bare minimum, and they won’t be the best drivers when they get their licence."

Tom Kinahan, who lives a few houses down from the crash site, said he often witnesses vehicles speeding around the corner and going right into the bush.

Kinahan won’t let his 10-year-old son play in his front yard, because he feels the speed at which cars travel down the street poses a threat to his son’s safety.

"Cars go by regularly at 70 kilometres. I rarely see a car doing the speed limit," he said.

In the last few years, the city has plowed out an area near the curve so cars hit a snow bank instead of sliding into the bush when they take the corner too quickly, Kinahan said.

"It shows the city’s aware (there’s an issue)," he said.

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