Secretary of State says better driver’s ed can prevent other tragic teen deaths

Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers stops into the polls at the Bangor Civic Center last week.
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers stops into the polls at the Bangor Civic Center last week. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 13, 2011, at 7:20 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 14, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A funeral for two teens killed in a car crash last week was held in Hermon on Saturday.

Secretary of State Charlie Summers wants to prevent similar tragedies.

Summers is organizing a review of the driver education system for the state in hopes of reducing the number of teen driving deaths.

“It’s absolutely heartwrenching to learn about the car accident in Carmel,” said Summers. “I think we really need to get moving on the driver curriculum. It’s not that it isn’t a good one, but you want it to be the very best.”

On Monday evening, the car James MacPhearson, 16, was driving left the road and hit a utility pole, killing him and his passenger, Richard Picken Jr., who was 14.

Summers said MacPhearson had his intermediate license, which is the term used for the first six months of a driver’s license for 16- and 17-year-old-drivers. It restricts who can ride with the young driver and at what time of day he or she can be driving.

According to a study done by the Secretary of State’s Office, nearly one young driver is killed each week. That makes motor vehicle crashes the leading cause of death for ages 15-24 in Maine.

“I don’t know if there’s any one silver bullet, if you will, that can cure all of this,” said Summers in a telephone interview. “I think through more education — better education — is the key.”

Summers said he wants Maine to have the best driver education system in the country. A committee of driving instructors and others, he said, may come up with a better curriculum for student drivers.

But Summers warned that it won’t happen overnight.

“It takes some time,” he said. “We needed to start that yesterday and get that moving.”

Summers said it’s not just classroom time but seat time that’s needed.

“I think better educating these young drivers, not just learning the rules of the road, but also the other physical skills in the car,” said Summers. “How to react when you get into a car skid, how to react in various situations when you get into a situation. They need more instruction time behind the wheel. That’s the critical component here.”

Distractions are constantly growing for drivers, especially cellphones and texting.

“Life has changed a great deal since I took driver education,” said Summers, who added that courses discuss those issues.

Some potential drivers are skipping driver’s ed altogether, said Summers.

“There are lot of people who wait until they are 18 and take the state test because the cost of education is so expensive,” said Summers, who added the typical range for a course is $350 to $500.

John MacDowall, owner and instructor of McLeod’s Driving School in Newport, thinks education should be mandatory, much like trying to get a motorcycle license.

“Even if you ride dirt bikes and stuff, you have to take the education course,” said MacDowall. “You have to in this state. It’s two days straight. It’s classroom and out on the course and then they take you on the road. It’s an intricate course you take.”

Summers said a Ford Foundation program that brings cars to schools and teaches students how to react in certain situations is very helpful. He said high schools in Scarborough and Bonny Eagle in Standish were visited recently.

“They would teach kids what it’s like to fishtail and see what it’s like with beer goggles on them, which alters their vision, so they understand what their actions may end up being,” he said.

Public speakers also may have an impact on young students by driving home the message that youngsters aren’t bulletproof.

“There are parents who lost their daughter and have spoken at a couple of high schools,” said Summers, who wouldn’t divulge their names for this story. “To have the constitution to talk about that kind of loss in front of young men and women. It’s an incredible and giving thing that they’d be willing to do that.”

Summers said he wants to involve the Legislature and the Transportation Committee on the review of the driver’s education program.

“We want to make sure what they do is not only done correctly, but also have the support of the Legislature as well,” Summers said.

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