The California Highway Patrol wants to teach young drivers how to be safer on the road. Photo: Carissa Rogers
The California Highway Patrol wants to teach young drivers how to be safer on the road. Photo: Carissa Rogers

For teenagers in America, getting a driver’s license is a crucial rite of passage into young adulthood. But for their parents, it is yet another source of anxiety, and for good reason. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers. That is why the California Highway Patrol offers Start Smart, a free program providing lessons on safe driving for teens.

Sean Wilkenfeld is the Oakland-area CHP spokesman and a local Start Smart instructor. Once a month, he invites teenagers and their parents to come into the CHP’s Oakland office for a two-hour session on safe driving.

The list of topics he covers is extensive and includes instruction on collision avoidance, the dangers of distracted driving, seatbelt use, how to check tire pressure and the differences between parent and teenage licenses. Most important about the course, though, is the dialogue it creates between teens and police officers, according to Wilkenfeld.

“What it boils down to is the chance for teens to interact with a police officer, ask questions that they may have heard theories about, and get the real answers,” Wilkenfeld said.

And the benefits of Start Smart can be immediate. Certain car insurance companies will reduce their premiums for teens that complete the course.

A parent gives testimony at Start Smart course. Photo: CHP
A parent gives testimony at Start Smart course. Photo: California Highway Patrol

Wilkenfeld also mentioned that it persuades some parents to let teens get a license sooner. Sometimes, parents go into the course wanting their offspring to wait until they’re 18 for a license. However, they may learn that teens who begin driving at 16 are often found to be safer on the road due to the restrictions placed on them during their first year of driving. It’s a win-win for cautious parents and teens anxious to get behind the wheel, according to Wilkenfeld.

Oakland’s chapter of the safety program started several years ago and Wilkenfeld has been teaching it for about a year. He and his colleagues also go to local businesses and high schools to offer safe driving seminars. Recently, the CHP began tracking teenagers who had taken the course, which Wilkenfeld said he hopes will eventually provide data on Start Smart’s effectiveness.

Start Smart is free and open to all teens and their parents. Upcoming classes will be offered July 31, Aug. 14, and Sept. 23 from 7-9 p.m at the CHP office at 3601 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. Anyone interested may call 510-450-3821 to reserve a spot.

Drew Jaffe is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the East Bay and now attends Occidental College in Los Angeles. He can be reached at

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