Redesigning Driver Education for Teenagers
Retraining Wheels: Driving is the most deadly thing teenagers do, so why do they get such ineffective training? And so little of it?
"Do you know you're going 85 miles an hour [in a 55-mph zone]?" In a bit of foreshadowing, that was the first question posed to yours truly on day one of driver's ed., and it was delivered with the cool nonchalance that can only be acquired from years of sitting in the passenger seat while scores of reckless new drivers take the wheel for the first time.
This has always struck us as one of life's little mysteries: Why, exactly, is it a good idea to have a teenager's first, ahem, official driving experience occur on chaotic public roads — out there with all of us experienced drivers — under the supervision of someone who may not even have a second set of controls with which to intervene if necessary?
Furthermore, training new drivers solely on public roads is akin to grooming an NBA hopeful by having him practice only passing in from the sideline. After puttering around in traffic and promising to learn parallel parking, how could anyone possibly be prepared for a millimeter-precise swerve to elude a life-or-death situation or be ready to countersteer through a resulting slide without making things worse?
Everyone knows teenagers can't drive, but the statistics are sobering. Driving cuts short the lives of more than 4000 young people in the U.S. each year. It's the No. 1 cause of death for teens, and studies have shown that the vast majority of these accidents are due to driver error. Even so, there doesn't seem to be much opposition to simply maintaining status quo with their training.
New safety cures — stability control, for example — as well as ever-stricter crash regulations and the proliferation of airbags are no doubt important and effective. At nearly 34,000, traffic fatalities in 2009 were the lowest ever recorded (since 1954), despite the fact that the total miles driven has continued to increase. But how about teaching new drivers how to avoid crashing in the first place? Commenting on his recent driver training, Ian Grinde, a 16-year-old from Minnesota, agrees: "Very little of it had to do with handling a 3000-to-4000-pound hunk of metal in emergency situations," he says.
A safety tactic many states have adopted is a graduated licensing program whereby teenagers are obligated to drive with their parents for an extended period before being granted an unrestricted license. Of course, this still does nothing to prepare a young driver for an instance in which a limit-handling maneuver could save lives. And who says that the parents are qualified to teach?
Rich Wojtczak believes there's a better way. He's proven it, in fact. After 30 years in the IT department at Ford, he and his wife, Maria, moved from Michigan to Arizona to enjoy their golden years. But soon after, a disturbing accident in which four teenagers were killed caught his attention, and he started to investigate new-driver training programs. Specifically, he was interested in finding out if computer simulators were being used anywhere to teach driving, thus removing the risks of first-time learning out on the road. He was appalled at the state regulations, which he found to be "totally inadequate," and "don't even require driving on a freeway before getting a license." Discovering that simulator schools were rare, Rich and Maria started their own company in 2003, Driving MBA, in Scottsdale.
The company has since expanded to a second Phoenix-area location and now trains about 1000 students per year in a variety of programs, including classes for adults and seniors. The capstone of these is the Elite Driver Training Program, a 40-hour course that may be the most comprehensive teen training in the country. Typically spread out over the six months it takes to progress from a permit to an official license, the Elite program includes 18 hours on driving simulators, eight hours behind a real wheel, and one day of hands-on car-control and accident-avoidance training at nearby Bondurant racing school. In addition, it includes training for parents in order to help them understand how to best interact with and positively influence their new driver, plus a two-hour session that teaches students such basics as changing a tire and jump-starting a dead battery, which far too many young drivers cannot do.
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I thought I was in an antique car parade!!
My oldest nephew took driver's ed at the same school 15 years later, and guess what? SAME SIMULATOR MOVIES!!