The open road ain’t cheap

Lindal Lynn of ABC Drivers Ed shows a teen the location of the windshield wipers during a lesson in 2011. New Mexican file photo

For many teenagers in New Mexico, getting a driver’s license means going through some unavoidable steps. First: Turn 15. Next: Get your hands on a couple of hundred bucks.

Driver’s education is an important and required step in getting your license as a minor in New Mexico, and it doesn’t always come cheap.

While some aspiring teen drivers at New Mexico public schools have the option to take free driver’s education courses, others might not have access to that option — or even know it exists.

Jorja Chambers, a sophomore at Sante Fe High, said she didn’t know her school had a free driver’s ed course when she enrolled at 505 Driving School in Santa Fe in 2017. The price for the school is $350, according to its website.

“It was hard, and my mom had to pay for it,” Chambers said. “Adding that price to the costly extracurriculars I do was rough.”

Drivers education is not only a requirement, but studies show it could also make drivers safer.

In a national study completed by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, motorists who had taken driver’s ed were involved in slightly fewer crashes.

When it comes to driver’s ed classes, students can choose one of two routes: private or school sponsored. One is fast, and one is free.

Private driving classes in the state typically consist of 30 hours of lessons, and seven or more hours behind the wheel. However, if the course does not provide driving time, there must be at least 56 classroom hours. These courses can cost as much as $450, but they are designed to provide students with knowledge of the road and its dangers efficiently so that teens can get their permit and begin driving legally as soon as possible.

Some local high schools offer a driver’s education class. It is free and provides teens with their permits at the end of the course. However, classes meet every morning from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. for a semester, with no instructed time behind the wheel.

Mina Edwards, a sophomore at Santa Fe High School, is in the process of taking her free driver’s ed course through the school. So far, so good, she said.

“My family members are very good drivers and have rubbed off on me a lot, so I’ve picked up most of the necessary skills of driving. However, the class has taught me a lot more of the specifics of driving etiquette,” Edwards said. “So far, my experience has been very positive, but it’s very hard to keep a good attitude that early in the morning.”

Edwards is taking her course at Santa Fe High due to the prices at private driving schools.

“I’m very thankful that they offer this class in school, because there is no cost,” she said. “The only price you have to pay is for your test and your permit, which is very inexpensive.”

There are many options for private schools, including at least three in Santa Fe and surrounding areas. The New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division publishes a list of driving schools certified by the state.

Public driver’s ed options are harder to find. The MVD list doesn’t include the driver’s ed program at Santa Fe High, for example.

Franklin Garcia, director of the Traffic Safety Division at the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which certifies driver’s ed programs in the state, said the division works with high schools to provide driver’s ed programs with no cost to students.

Garcia said Santa Fe High currently is the only public high school providing that free option. He said Capital High School used to have a program, but he believes the instructor moved to another school.

The high school programs, Garcia said, are specific for students at those schools.

“We will work with any school to provide direction and support for getting a program in their school,” Garcia added in an email.

In regard to the prices of private driving schools, opinions vary.

Ian Saverin, a sophomore at New Mexico School for the Arts who is enrolled with ABC Drivers Ed, said the cost seems reasonable in relevance to the training he received.

“You can’t put a price on someone’s life,” he said.

Lorena and Donny Robertson, owners of ABC Drivers Ed and TLC Driving Safety, believe the $400-$430 price for ABC Drivers Ed classes is adequate for the amount of training offered.

“Every student is supposed to get 30 hours of classroom and seven [hours] behind the wheel, so if you have 20 students in a class, you’re looking at 20 times seven. That’s 140 hours of just driving, and there’s cost involved,” Lorena Robertson said.

The Robertsons believe more enrollment of student drivers would allow them to lower their pricing.

“We have to pay for the building, cars, insurance, gas, and all the instructors and office persons,” Lorena Robertson said. “If the state would help us with a guarantee every month of 30 students, we could charge the students less money.”

Nonprofit media outlet Pacific Standard suggests that driver’s education is getting harder to afford as states such as Michigan have reduced their funding for driver’s ed courses.

According to a 2018 article by Pacific Standard, low-income teens and teens of color are less likely to get their licenses if that price climbs.

A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute shows that in 2014, only 24.5 percent of 16-year-olds had their licenses. That’s a huge decrease from 1983, when around 46.2 percent of teenagers had their licenses.

Whether this decline is because of public transit systems, the rise of companies like Uber and Lyft, or just a fading desire to leave the house because of the black hole of social media, the decline in teen driving is significant. But only time will tell. As Generation Z grows up, self-driving cars become available and technological advancements continue to change societal behavior, teens will still crave independence, but will they feel the pull of the open road?

Ivy is a sophomore at Santa Fe High School. Contact her at ivy.ian.st.clair@gmail.com.

So you want to get your license …

Under the New Mexico Graduated Driver’s Licensing law enacted on Jan 1, 2000, New Mexico teens face an odyssey of bureaucracy when it comes to getting their license. The process looks something like this:

Step 1: Take a drivers education class, finish your required hours of classroom time, and pass your permit test, to receive your referral card from the driving school.

Step 2: Get a ride to the Motor Vehicle Division to get a $10 permit.

Step 3: Complete 50 hours of driving with a parent or guardian. Ten of those hours must be at night. (If a teen attends a private driving school, they must also complete the necessary hours of instructor-led driving practice.)

Step 4: After six months, return to the MVD to test for a provisional license ($18). This test includes both written and practical components, and teens must pass both to get their provisional license.

This license is valid for 12 months, and includes the following limitations: Teens can’t drive with more than one passenger under 21, and can’t drive between midnight and 5 a.m.

Step 5: After 12 months of good driving (that means no tickets), a teen can finally test for an unrestricted license.