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Teen Traffic Deaths: Is Best Offense a Good Defensive Driving Class?

— According to the National Safety Council, half of all teenagers are involved in a car crash before they graduate high school, and drivers age 15 to 24 are more likely than any other age group to be killed in a crash. Defensive driving courses like NSC's Alive at 25 program aim to save lives by teaching young drivers such sobering facts.

Defensive driving courses vary in length and curriculum, and some have a driving component in addition to classroom time, but most are meant to follow up on basic driver education programs with additional training. To see what young drivers like me can stand to learn in such classes, I enrolled in an Alive at 25 course, which teaches teens that their behind-the-wheel decisions can have grave consequences.

Who's It For?

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, an estimated 1.2 million teens have taken the Alive at 25 course since 1995; it's offered by courts, schools and police departments in 42 states. The Kentucky State Police reported that fatalities among 16- to 19-year-old drivers have decreased by 60 percent since the state began offering the program in 2004, and other states have reported comparable results.

The class is open to anyone age 15 to 24, but since many county courts assign it as a remediation option for teen drivers with traffic citations, most of the 37 people in the class I attended were there involuntarily. And by most, I mean all. Interestingly, I was the only driver in the room who was not there because of a speeding ticket or accident.

Over the course of four hours, the instructor talked us through a slideshow presentation and several video spots. There were some workbook activities and group discussions, and at the end of the class, we received a certificate of completion.

What I Liked

Since Alive at 25 is such a popular program, it was easy to find an offering in my area that fit my schedule. The class I took was on a Saturday morning at a community college campus near my home, so accessibility was a major plus.

The course instructor was a veteran law enforcement officer from a local police station (which gave me flashbacks to driver's ed in high school) who supplemented the course material with anecdotes about his years of experience with teen drivers. The instructor communicated effectively that the statistics constantly thrown at young drivers aren't just numbers, but human lives cut short.

Needless to say, I drove home very carefully.

What I Didn't Like

Since the class I took was clearly geared toward remediating traffic violations under court supervision, the four hours felt a bit like detention. For drivers without traffic citations who are interested in a driver's ed refresher course like I was, an online option would have done the trick without the "Breakfast Club"-like atmosphere of the classroom.

It seems as though the Alive at 25 class was designed with a "scare them straight" philosophy since it focused on the gruesome consequences of speeding, distracted driving and drunk driving instead of how to drive defensively. I left the class with this thought: I know not to drive drunk, but do I know how to respond if someone else is driving drunk and wanders into my lane?

NSC's presentation materials were outdated, which was distracting — and sadly comedic. Much of the course focused on the dangers of distracted driving, but videos mentioning PDAs and first-generation iPods got laughs and groans. I doubt any of the students in the class had ever seen a PDA, so needless to say, the curriculum could use an update to be more relevant to today's teens.

The Verdict

Even though there was no driving component and the presentations fell short in the relatability department, being reminded of the consequences of irresponsible driving was worth it. A refresher course is beneficial, especially for young drivers who have received traffic citations.

For drivers and parents looking for something more hands-on than Alive at 25, a longer defensive driving course like B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) includes exercises behind the wheel that are aimed at honing young drivers' crash-avoidance reflexes.

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