By Katie Fallon
katiefallon@sandysprings.org

While every graduating class of Leadership Sandy Springs completes a group community project, the results of last year’s class effort has the potential to save lives, especially those of teenagers.

Leadership Sandy Springs, which gathers local leaders for community action and improvement, has partnered with the Sandy Springs Police Department and the Safe America Foundation to form the first SafeTeen Georgia affiliate in the city. The program will include 30 hours of classroom instruction at Apostles Lutheran Church on Glenridge Drive. In addition the course fee will include six or 10 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction taught by SafeTeen instructors.

The inaugural classes will be held during the upcoming winter break from school. The first session will be held Dec. 26 to 29 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The second session will take place Jan. 2 to 5 during the same time period.

The program is designed to fulfill the requirement set forth by the newly enacted Joshua’s Law. As of Jan. 1 of this year, all 16-year-olds are required to complete a driver’s education course approved by the Department of Driver’s Services to obtain their Class D driver’s license. The teens, as was the case prior to Joshua’s Law, must also complete a cumulative total of at least 40 hours of other supervised driving experience, and six of those training hours must be completed at night. If the course is not completed, a driver’s license cannot be obtained until the age of 17.

Joshua’s Law was passed during the 2005 session of the Georgia General Assembly and was inspired by the efforts of Alan and LuGina Brown. Their son Joshua was in a single vehicle accident while driving alone on July 1, 2003. The 17-year-old, a rising senior at Cartersville High School, hit a puddle of water and hydroplaned in his truck before hitting a tree. He died eight days later. The Browns believed if their son was better educated about driving in adverse weather conditions, he could have survived.

Leadership Sandy Springs Executive Director Carolyn Axt said while Safe America had all the certification and instructional materials in place to establish an affiliate program, the 2007 Leadership class and local police were able to provide the access specifically to Sandy Springs residents.

“We’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Axt said. “The three-way partnership is how it grew.”

The 30-member Leadership class, Axt said, was inspired to help create the program following the traffic deaths of local teens in the recent past.

“We keep losing too many kids in Sandy Springs,” Axt said. “Anytime that happens, it just touches us.”

That’s where the police department becomes a valuable third of the partnership. Because police officers have seen what can happen when inexperienced teen drivers get behind the wheel, Axt said they can provide the right perspective and knowledge for students.

“They’re in the community,” she said. “They want to be active with the teens.”

The police department will be donating the cost of time officers spend as instructors. Police Chief Gene Wilson commended both the partnership and the benefits that will affect both the city’s teens and the drivers who traverse its roadways every day.

“The SafeTeen Georgia program in Sandy Springs, inspired by Leadership Sandy Springs, is a wonderful partnership between the Sandy Springs Police Department, SafeTeen America and the community,” Wilson said. “While the trained teens get the immediate benefits of an excellent driving course taught by some of Sandy Springs’ finest, the entire community reaps the long-term benefits when the young people on out streets are equipped with this caliber of driver education.”

Wilson said Sandy Springs has had some serious teen driving accidents and is not immune to the problem. He said education, along with strict enforcement, can help reduce the numbers and seriousness of accidents involving teenaged drivers.

Axt said while there are other driver’s education programs in the area like Nathan’s or Taggart’s, this program adds a local element by having Sandy Springs first responders included as instructors.

“Everyone seems to have waiting lists,” Axt said. “There’s enough need for all of us to be players.”

SafeAmerica, which is headquartered in Marietta, partners its training with the Georgia Mutual Aid Group, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs. The nonprofit organization’s president Len Pagano said even with the cost of the program, the opportunity to save lives cannot be ignored.

“If we are going to lower the terrible toll that teen driving crashes has on our state, we believe every new driver should have formal driver training,” Pagano said. “The impetus behind SafeTeen Georgia is to save lives.”

The program will cost either $449 or $549, depending on the amount of behind-the-wheel instruction chosen, and steps have been put in place to help offset those costs for teens in need.

SafeAmerica and the Community Action Center (CAC) have teamed up to offer $350 scholarships to 15- to 17-year-olds who meet a series of requirements that include a maximum family income, proof of high school attendance and an optional essay to describe particular family circumstances. Those wishing to apply for the scholarship can find more information at www.safeamerica.org or call the CAC at 770-552-4889.

“A certain segment of the population is very much in need,” Axt said. “We’re not talking about the homeless, but the working poor.”

The executive director said the organizations involved have already raised $2,500 for the scholarships, and they expect to raise $10,000.

For their participation, graduates of the class will receive a $150 tax credit and a 10 percent or greater reduction in automobile insurance, depending on their provider.

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