ATLANTA - Georgia is restarting state-funded drivers education programs more than four years after lawmakers quit funding them.
Channel 2 Action News has learned that when the program lost funding, the state didn’t stop collecting money for it.
A Channel 2 investigation found that lawmakers funneled more than $73 million collected for a drivers education program into the state’s general fund. That included more than $42 million collected during the four years that the program was not funded.
“We should never take that money to prop up the general fund,” Rep. Chuck Martin told investigative reporter Erica Byfield.
Martin, who chairs the House Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee, was a supporter of stricter licensing requirements for teens when SB 226, or Joshua’s Law, was passed in 2005.
The law created the Driver’s Education Commission and established a fee on traffic offenses, like DUIs, to fund the program. Fines originally were 5 percent for every violation, but that dropped to 1.5 percent. To date, $87 million has been collected because of that fee, but only $13.6 million has been spent on educating teen drivers.
“In my mind, every dollar of that $73 million should ultimately be spent to train young people,” Martin said.
Joshua’s law requires 16-year-old Georgians applying for a license to complete a drivers education course and 40 hours of supervised driving, including six hours of nighttime driving.
Alan Brown knows every detail of SB 226. He’s Joshua’s dad.
“You think they don't get it?” Byfield asked Brown about the state’s decision to stop funding the program in 2011.
“They absolutely don't get it,” Brown said.
Joshua Brown, 17, died when his truck hydroplaned in a rainstorm. Brown said lack of training, not road conditions, took his son’s life. He hoped that tools like driving simulators in high school classrooms would give teens the experience they needed before they got behind the wheel.
“They don't understand the necessity, they don't understand the urgency. These kids are dying and it can be fixed,” Brown said.
Although the funding for state driver’s education stopped in 2011, the requirement for teens to complete a course didn’t. Options for young drivers were limited and expensive. Instead of relying on a free course in public schools, some teens were forced to spend hundreds of dollars to complete the requirements.
Eva Lehman,18, took an inexpensive course online to meet the state’s requirement.
“A lot of kids my age who do online schools like that, actually they don't pay attention,” Lehman told Byfield. “It's not a classroom, there's no instructor, and all you have to do is click past the information. You don't even have to read it, and you get the credit.”
Lehman’s parents paid for her to take an accident avoidance workshop. Although it is above the state’s standards, she said the classroom environment taught her how vulnerable teen drivers are.
“Behind the wheel I kind of feel invincible, like, you know, it's easy, nothing will happen to me, and that's not true,” Lehman said. “I could be a statistic if I don’t really focus what I’m doing.”
State officials told Byfield that the new program will offer free access to driver’s education classrooms, even driving simulators, in the coming months. Harris Blackwood, chairman of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, is now charged with the task of resurrecting Georgia’s driver’s education program.
“I think we've done a good job of returning this program back to life,” Blackwood told Byfield. “We will touch more than 10,000 students with scholarships from now till next June.”
The new program has some changes. First, courses will be available primarily through the technical college system, not public high schools. Some districts, like Gwinnett County schools, will continue to provide programs that they already had in place. For districts without existing programs, students can apply at 20 of the state’s 22 technical colleges to take free classes funded by the state. Students can apply for scholarships in order to enroll in the state programs.
The state restored some funding in 2013, but progress has been slow.
“I would have loved to have students in the classes last July, but that was not possible,” Blackwood said. “When you are working with the people's money, you have to make sure you are doing things the right way.”
Brown is critical of the plan. He advocated implementation of the program by high schools, not technical colleges. He said the program reboot was slow to start and is riddled with flaws.
“I think it's a slap in the face to teenagers,” Brown said.
“What would you say to people who think this was a failed promise by the state of Georgia?” Byfield asked Blackwood.
“The Legislature made the decision it did, and I’m not going to try to second-guess the general assembly,” Blackwood said.
A loophole in SB 226 allowed for the shift in the funding. The fine print in the bill said “subject to appropriation.” Martin said there is a fix, but it means changing Georgia’s constitution.
“I'd like to see something, and I’m talking to the legislative council about it,” Martin told Byfield. “A constitutional amendment that says shall the legislator have the authority when implementing a fee, or one or more fees for a specific purpose for a limited time to dedicate those funds to that purpose.”
Martin said he will discuss drafting some type of legislation that will restrict appropriations for fines that are created with a specific purpose, like Joshua’s Law.
But a piece of legislation cannot repair frustrations over a program left dormant for years while parents and teens paid the difference.
“That's a shortfall we have to own as a state,” Martin said.