The Tradition of Driver’s Ed

Story by Jeannie Stone

Statistic’s don’t lie. The truth of the matter is that every day in Arkansas, an average of two people die in traffic crashes. According to the most recent statistics released from the Arkansas State Police, 3,322 Arkansans died due to automobile accidents in the five years spanning 2002 through 2006. Furthermore, 69,570 Arkansans sustained injuries.

In the River Valley alone, 69 persons lost their lives due to motor vehicle accidents in 2006, and in every category where statistics are monitored, young people are disproportionately affected. In 2006 alone, 185 young people between the ages of 16- 25 died on Arkansas roads.

Coach Charlie Sorrels, athletic director and head football coach, is doing his part to reduce the number of youth involved in accidents. He has taught Driver’s Education classes, proven to positively affect the driving performance of participants, as part of the curriculum at Atkins High School for 25 years.

He also teaches a two-week summer course to help with the student overflow from other towns. Last summer, 22 teenagers signed up for his class.

“Of course, a lot of times the primary reason for my students enrolling is for the insurance break their parents receive,” Sorrels said. He takes that to heart as he organizes guest lecturers and activities to emphasize the importance of careful driving and expose the unseen perils facing drivers.

“The more education, the better drivers they will be,” he said. “We try to do two things, educate and evaluate. We focus heavily on the importance of wearing seatbelts, the dangers of drinking and driving, the folly of speeding and tailgating.”

The class covers the issue of distractions on the second day. Tempting activities, such as cell phone usage and changing the radio station, were discussed in a film. Many of these practices are unique to modern drivers, caused by fiddling with radios, which have been around a long time.

Sorrels invites Ron Hale from the Union Pacific Railroad to present ‘Operation Lifesaver.’

“The kids are always impressed with Mr. Hale,” Sorrels said. “He paints a concrete picture of the strength of those trains.”

According to Hale, 25% of all fatal accidents involving a train are the result of a car hitting the side of the train — not the other way around. What that means is that drivers misjudged the distance or speed of upcoming trains and attempted to beat the train to the crossing.

Hale compared a car to a soda can. “Imagine what a car can do when it hits a soda can,” he instructed the students. “That is what a train does to a car. It’s not about the speed, it’s about the weight.”

The class pays attention. In fact, the students are unusually engaged, Sorrels said.

“Most of our population drives and these kids can’t wait to join them, but there’s a lot they need to know first.”

One thing the students learn is the serious threat posed from alcohol and drug abuse. The number one killer of teenagers is motor vehicle accidents.

“Nothing even comes close to being second,” Sorrels said. A large portion of those accidents are alcohol related, he says.

“We show films on drinking and driving,” Sorrels said. According to the statistics, 46% of all traffic fatalities in Arkansas during the 2006 year were caused by drugs or alcohol. That was 3% higher than the national norm.

To address substance abuse, Sorrels uses an exercise to show the effects of drinking and driving. He set up an obstacle course, secured a golf cart and dispensed special goggles to the students. The goggles were enhanced to simulate different blood alcohol levels. Some goggles offered nighttime scenarios.

“They’re always really shocked at how they are affected by the goggles,” which are set to mimic blood alcohol levels ranging from .06 – 2.0 (the legal limit is just under .08).

Sorrels pointed at a student weaving around the cones.

“What he’s having to do is compensate by looking straight ahead. That’s why drunk drivers hit pedestrians and run stop lights. They are just focused on what’s in front of them and not getting caught. They just want to make it home.”

Students in last summer’s class reacted to the glasses in much the same manner of Sorrel’s past students. Aaron Scruggs, 16, of Russellville finished the course only knocking down two cones.

“This is not a boring class. It’s fun. I got to see what effect alcohol has on me, and that is a good thing because I already have my own car,” he said.

Zach Steen, another 16 year old from Russellville, agreed: “It’s pretty intense because the cone course really gave me the effect of drunk driving, and I don’t ever want to be in that situation.”

Lexi Plumb, 15, of Russellville also performed poorly on the course.

“I really like this activity because I don’t want to drink and find out for myself. This class really teaches you on things you don’t think about that could happen, and what to do in case of emergencies.”

In fact, the final classroom session covered what happens after a car accident. A video showed how families and friends coped after the loss of a loved one, and what the driver went through after causing a fatal crash.

Sorrels is well aware of the grim realities facing the emerging drivers and has taken great care to create a model framework. He understands that he has a limited amount of time to hold his students’ attention, and he aims to make an impression. He is quick to point out, however, the merits of today’s young drivers.

“I think kids today are more conscious of driving than their parents were. We do a survey at the beginning of class, and I bet 90% of them wear their seatbelts,” Sorrels said. “When I was a teenager, nobody ever wore seatbelts, not even during the driving test.”

Most of the reason for Sorrels’ optimism is that he sees the community as a whole doing a better job of articulating concerns to the new drivers. Schools and civic groups don’t shy away from addressing the issues with assemblies and mock car wrecks staged right before proms, but parents, too, have become active in training their children.

Past students have approached Sorrels with stories of near-misses. They credit their learned responses to him.

“I’ve had kids come back and tell me that they tried what they learned in class when they were skidding out of control,” Sorrels said.

“I think it’s good that all of us are learning this together,” Laura Brown, 16, of Russellville said.

“My parents wanted me to do this for the sake of insurance, but my dad pretty much told me that I needed to take this class to be better prepared.”

“In a way, it’s easier in a rural community,” Sorrels said. “By the time I get the kids, they have been driving golf carts, four-wheelers, tractors and lawn mowers, so they have experience behind the wheel. A lot of these kids go to the (river) bottoms to learn to drive where there aren‘t any people around.”

“We are about to let them lose on the same roads we drive,” he said.

Sorrels comes from a long line of educators. His father coached at Atkins High School for 23 years, his grandmother worked in the schools, his wife is employed as a physical therapist for MiChild Development and two of his daughters work in the schools. He has dedicated his life to raising responsible generations.

“I have four grandchildren who live here. I take my job very seriously.”  

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