The fund for public high schools was set up in 2007 by Joshua’s Law, named after a Bartow County student who died after losing control of his car. The legislation also requires that drivers younger than 17 take an approved course before they can get a license.
Courts in Rome and Floyd County are sending about $5,000 a month to the state fund, but the county school system — which operates an extracurricular driver’s education program open to all local teens — has never received a grant.
“We applied for grants in 2008 and 2009, but neither of them were funded,” Floyd County Schools spokesman Tim Hensley said. “We asked for things like cars, so we don’t have to rent them every year, simulators for more real-life experience, passenger brakes for the instructors and training, so we could add a few instructors to open more slots.”
Meanwhile, students in Floyd County pay a $195 fee for the course, which is still less than the $300 to $400 charged by commercial driving schools.
“It’s not part of the state curriculum so we don’t get any (regular) funding for it,” Hensley said. “The money collected has to cover costs, ... and they’ll usually make it back on insurance premiums because they get a discount for taking the course.”
Rome Police Lt. Roy Willingham noted that the public school course offers the basics but lacks the skill drills available through commercial programs.
“There’s no accident-avoidance training,” he said. “There’s no practice for sudden stops, going off-road, skidding ... things you’re going to encounter under actual driving conditions.”
The GDEC’s latest report indicates it awarded $365,390 in grants to established programs during fiscal year 2010 but, “because of state budget issues, new grants were not issued.”
Lawmakers tap funds
State Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, said the Driver Education and Training Fund is not the only set-aside state lawmakers have tapped to balance the general fund budget in recent years.
“There are a multitude of funds that are not being used for what people think they’re paying their fines and fees for,” she said. “It’s not a good time to take money away from the general fund, when all the departments are so stressed, but the purpose was to fund things that were needed but had no allocations.”
The funds aren’t protected without an earmark in the state Constitution, although House Bill 811 would have stopped the add-on fees if the money is not used for its designated purpose. The measure, co-sponsored by state Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, did not pass by the end of the session in March.
Reece said access to drivers education is especially problematic for teens who live in rural areas.
“The schools do a public safety service offering these courses to teen drivers, and they’re so strapped for funds right now it’s difficult for them to find the money” she said.
Eddie Lumsden, the Republican challenging Reece for the 12th House District seat, said he strongly supports Joshua’s Law and the larger goal of training teen drivers.
“As a (Georgia State Patrol) trooper, I saw all too many avoidable accidents involving teen drivers,” he said. “As an insurance agent who insures teen drivers, I know the challenges families face in teaching their children to drive safely. And, as a parent who lost a child in a teen driving accident, I know the heartache that comes with such a loss.”
Lumsden said the law needs to be modified to keep the collections out of the general fund. He said he’s spoken with Meadows and state Reps. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, and Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, about the issue. All four have promised support for a change, he said.