- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - In the 75 years since State High began offering the nation’s first driver’s ed course, the cars have changed. The anxiety of taking the wheel for the first time hasn’t.

Kelsey Graham buckled her seat belt recently and put her hands at “3” and “9” on the steering wheel of a small blue hatchback. But 10 minutes into her drive, she hit a snag.

“We’ve got to start working on stopping behind the stop sign,” State College Area High School driver’s education instructor Brad Fisher said from the passenger seat.

Driver’s education classes have become a rite of passage for teenagers, and it all started right here at State High. Whether it was really 75 years ago, though, depends on whom you believe.

Varying accounts offer different dates of that first wheel-gripping class taught by Amos Neyhart, who was also an industrial engineering professor at nearby Penn State University. One university historical guide lists 1933 as the first year, while AAA goes with 1934. A State High reference book has 1935.

Regardless, Happy Valley _ as locals call this rural area _ is the birthplace of driver’s ed.

“They had all the firsts,” said Allen Robinson, CEO of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, based in Indiana, Pa. “No one, in terms of a city schools system, is as good as State College.”

Most states allow residents to obtain at least a provisional license at age 16, just about when someone is going through their sophomore or junior year in high school.

Of the roughly 6 million 16-year-olds nationwide, about 2.5 million get their license at that age each year, Robinson said, citing federal statistics. And of those 2.5 million, 60 percent learn to drive through public schools.

All those programs can trace their roots to State High.

Like generations of teenagers before them, students like 16-year-old Anna Juska dream of the little taste of freedom a license will afford them from the mom-and-dad shuttle service.

“I am so excited to finally have that freedom, even though my parents said I have to wait a little before I drive a little farther” out of State College, Anna said with a grin after a recent class.

As in many other schools, students at State High first take a 30-hour lecture course in preparation to earn their learner’s permit, something they are eligible for at age 16.

Remember all those in-class videos of safe-driving techniques and mock accidents? They still watch ‘em _ just from DVDs, instead of flimsy film reels.

Teacher Alan Crafts dimmed the lights and turned on the overhead projector one recent morning in his classroom. On the walls were posters of classic cars and educational messages like “Buckle Up.”

“School zones and parking lots can be dangerous,” the video’s narrator says in a cheerful voice as a driver navigates down a street. “Many accidents involving property damages occur in parking lots, so always be aware of other drivers, and always give that little extra time to be …”

Sounds boring, though most students welcome class: They need to pass it, after all, to get their permit.

“It’s pretty real; you learn a lot of stuff,” said 16-year-old Bryn Shea. “You should probably pay attention or else you won’t know how to drive.”

Crafts has taught driver’s ed for 31 years, the past six at State High.

“I’ve got this down to an exact science,” he said.

He said the best part of the job is getting to know the students _ and having a sense of humor. But he said the toughest part is getting students to realize the potential dangers of driving.

“It’s like breathing. We all do it in a car everyday. We take it for granted,” Crafts said.

Once a student completes the classroom course, they move on to 10 hours of in-car training _ four more hours than the state requires.

And here, students drive on what is believed to be one of the first “driving ranges” dedicated solely to driver’s ed; it was built in the 1960s.

The rectangular road course has two short roads cutting through a grass infield to create three-way intersections. Four at a time, students each get in a car and instructors monitor their driving by radio outside, or from their perch in a two-story tower resembling an air traffic control tower.

“Don’t look at me; watch the cone,” Fisher told one student driver over the radio as the teenager practiced backing up on a curve.

Students also got individual instruction _ and luckily for the teachers, the special student driver vehicles are rigged with passenger side brake pedals, too.

Fisher said some people think he’s nuts for teaching the teen driving classes.

“The more kind ones will say, ‘You must be really brave,’ or they’ll say, ‘You must be crazy riding with teenagers in a car,’” Fisher said.

In the early 1990s, driver’s ed was available in public schools to roughly 90 to 95 percent of students nationwide, Robinson said.

But he said fewer school districts are offering the program because of what he called unfair questions about its effectiveness, as well as financial constraints.

“School budgets, the way they’ve been cut the last five years, it’s had a real impact,” he said. Some schools that once offered programs during the regular school day have pushed classes back to after school or during summer recess.

Robinson, who represents both private and public educators, said commercial classes can be just as effective as those offered by public schools. If options are available, it’s up to parents to determine which course is better for their child, he said.

In State College, high school class was the best option for Kelsey and Anna. The good friends and softball teammates said they planned to go out to dinner to celebrate whenever either of them finally got their license.

“If I get my license first, then I’ll be the best,” Kelsey joked about her friendly wager with Anna.

Kelsey took the driver’s license test six days later and passed.

Looks like Kelsey will be driving.

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