Students at Dexter High talk about driving.
Over the past six weeks, AOL Autos has been delving into the topic of teen driving: the scope of the problem, the role driver's education plays in the process, and what parents can do help their teens master their driving skills.

But one important voice was missing: That of the teens themselves.

So in mid-September, AOL Autos sat down with a panel of seven novice drivers at Dexter High School in Dexter, Mich. They offered first-person insight into what it's like to take driver's ed, what it's like learning to drive while sitting next to an anxious parent, and what they really do when you're not around.

Not surprisingly, the teens we spoke with really love to drive and earnestly want to be good at it.

Driving = complete freedom for teens

"It's complete freedom," said Connor Thompson, 17. "When you're five, you don't fantasize about voting."

Dexter has had its share of teen driving tragedy. Just four years ago, a student died in a car accident that occurred during school hours. On an icy day in December, three students left campus to go pick up supplies for a class project. On their way back, the driver hit a patch of black ice and struck a tree just south of the high school.

Tyler Steffey, 16, was in the back seat. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The community has since built a little league baseball field in Tyler's honor. The issue still hurts at the high school, because teachers still remember seeing Tyler in the halls. The school was sued by Tyler's family.

But for today's high school students, the accident feels very distant.

"We're a little bit young for that," Connor says.

Although they're really excited about learning to drive, they're not all that excited about driving with their parents. Parents stress them out. The little panic attacks and reactions to minor errors make them tense.

Experts say parents need to get a grip and realize teens are going to make mistakes behind the wheel. That's part of the process. Teens would really like parents to hear this message.

And even though they're aware that texting and driving is dangerous, they are trying to find ways around that. They text while waiting in traffic, or at stop lights. And they think it's acceptable to glance at the screen while they're driving.

As for driver's education, they are frustrated with the format. In Michigan, students can start driver training when they hit 14 years and 8 months old. They must sit through 24 hours of classroom instruction, and six hours of behind-the-wheel training.

They say that's too much time in class, and not enough time on the road in the car.

Big surprise. Teens don't like limits.

And they aren't big fans of the graduated drivers licensing laws, which impose rules about the number of passengers that can be in a car, and curfews on younger drivers.

But most importantly: They don't understand why those rules are in place to begin with.

In order to really change how teens think about driving, safety advocates and parents need to listen to the people who are actually going through training and are the ones in the accidents. Only by listening to them will we be able to truly change how we approach teaching this crucial skill.

Why? Because as well intentioned as driver's ed may be, it won't help the intended beneficiaries if they are tuning out ineffective teaching. Graduated license laws are critical to limiting inexperienced drivers, and cutting back on the number of opportunities teens have to be in situations they can't handle. But if the law is not communicated effectively, teens will find ways to flout the law, which means taking more risks behind the wheel than they are equipped to cope with.

Teens who participated:

Taylor Kraft, 17; Julie Niethammer, 17; Emily Darrow, 16; Connor Thompson, 17; Ali Bowman, 17; Jennifer Stirling, 17; Michael McGonigle, 18.

Editor's note: Author Sharon Silke Carty is a resident of Dexter, Michigan.

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