MVA chief is passionate about better training for teen drivers

GETTING THERE

November 03, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,getting.there@baltsun.com

John T. Kuo still remembers vividly every detail of the night in 1972 when he became an only child.

The man who heads the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration was 12 at the time, living in California with his parents while his older brother and sister attended college in Texas.

The call came shortly after midnight.

"I remember my dad picking up the phone," Kuo recalled in a recent interview.

The caller was a cousin who lived in Texas, struggling to come up with the words to say that Kuo's brother and sister had been in a car crash. He remembers his father demanding to know which hospital they were in and learning they weren't in a hospital.

"He was obviously in shock and responded with, 'What, they're gone?' " Kuo said. He remembers his mother insisting the news couldn't be true.

But it was. Lily Kuo, 20, and Donald Kuo, 19, were killed in an accident caused by a teenage driver who was in a stolen car and fleeing police. When the 15-year-old crossed the center line, Kuo's siblings swerved to avoid the car. Their vehicle flipped over, killing them and one of their friends. The teenage car thief was unhurt.

"All of a sudden I was no longer just the youngest. I was also the oldest," Kuo said. "They were a wonderful brother and sister. I don't remember anything bad about them."

The pain of that night has faded, Kuo said, though there are occasional reminders. There was the time his two sons - now 16 and 19 - wondered why they had no aunts or uncles on his side of the family. The question sent him down to the basement, where he dug out old photos of Aunt Lily and Uncle Donald.

Kuo said his sons faced "double jeopardy" when it came time for them to begin driving. Not only was their dad carrying around memories of what can happen to young drivers, he was also the head of the agency that issues licenses. He said he has been strict about their driving instruction - but not as demanding as his own father, who required the 16-year-old Kuo to memorize the entire state driving manual.

The MVA chief, 49, who usually seeks to avoid the limelight, told his story as a way of explaining his passion about the issue of teenage driving.

Under Kuo, who has led the agency since 2006, the MVA has moved to tighten its regulation of driving schools and require that instructors undergo more intensive training. The new rules are pending before a legislative committee.

"There are good driving schools and there are some not-so-good driving schools," Kuo said. Among other things, the MVA would require driving instructors to undergo a full background check.

Kuo said Maryland is also moving to secure a grant to evaluate the new federally recommended driving curriculum, which includes an increased emphasis on avoiding distractions such as cell phones and text-messaging. He hopes the state can become the first to implement the new curriculum.

Maryland has won praise from safety advocates for its graduated driver's license program, which includes the issuance of a provisional license to drivers under 18. But Kuo said there is a need to further tighten the restrictions on teen drivers under the program - an action that would require General Assembly approval.

Kuo said the agency has also tried to take advantage of teenagers' familiarity with the Internet to revamp driver's training away from the memorization of manuals. He noted that the agency has devised Internet tutorials that provide an alternative to the written word. Young drivers - and their parents - can find them at the MVA Web site (www.mvamaryland.com). It's worth going through the tutorial several times because the questions change - and the parent who takes it might be surprised to find himself or herself falling short of a perfect score (as I found out).

The stakes involved in driver training were underscored in a most brutal way last month when a 15-year-old Montgomery County teenager was killed and four others were injured in a fiery crash on a dark, winding road in Damascus.

The driver was 17.

Kuo noted that federal statistics show the risk of a fatal accident increases when several teenagers occupy the same vehicle.

"When another teenager gets into a vehicle driven by a teenager, the risk doubles," Kuo said. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the dangers increase exponentially with each additional teen in the car.

Maryland law restricts new drivers from carrying minor passengers for the first 151 days they have their provisional licenses. Kuo is leaving open the possibility the O'Malley administration will seek to tighten the law even further.

Could such a life-saving notion be sold to the General Assembly? I don't know, but John Kuo has the statistics - and the personal story - to be a mighty effective salesman. Let's hope he gets a chance.

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