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Driver's Edge - Free Driving Program Teaches Teens Importance of Safety

Teens Learn Safe Driving Skills with Driver's Edge

I don't remember the names of my two driver's training instructors from the week-long, privately-run course I took when I was 15. That said, I'm just going to admit that I don't remember a single piece of advice they gave me. In fact, I don't recall much of anything that was discussed in class or on the road.

However, I remember the musty smell and the warped wood paneling of the church basement where the classes were held, where we were told to memorize dozens of questions and their respective answers. I remember the fear of sliding into the driver's seat for the first time, the way my shaky hands finally gripped the wheel like it was a long-awaited baton in the world's most important race. I remember driving at a snail's pace (at the instructor's command, of course) and how I sheepishly shrugged off the annoyed looks I received as other drivers sped past. But the two things I remember the most were my instructor's overgrown, outdated brown mustache and his knee-high yellow-striped athletic socks that were straight out of 1978.

Oh, and that his wife worked at McDonald's and could get him free hamburgers.

The instructors lectured us on parallel parking, on merging, on right-of-way. We, the students, just pretended to listen while smirking at each other - knowing that with our $100 fee paid and a handful of memorized test answers, we'd be soon driving to the next football game or shuttling friends to the mall.

I passed my written driver's test having logged only a total of two hours behind the wheel. Two hours, most of which were spent perfecting stops and turns in empty subdivisions and quiet suburban side streets. Ten minutes of that time, if I recall correctly, were spent waiting in the McDonald's parking lot while my instructor hopped out for a free cheeseburger.

The instructors hardly broached the subject of emergency maneuvers - the closest thing we got was an offhand, "Always wear your seat belt. Don't speed. Oh, and don't drink and drive."

As my fifteen-year-old self would've said, "Um, like, duh?"

So, ten years later, when I was asked to cover a free teen driving program called Driver's Edge - taught by professional race car drivers - I jumped at the chance. Mostly because I wanted to see if I could pass for a seventeen-year-old.

Sadly enough, I didn't.

But I learned more in four comprehensive hours than I did my entire week of driver's training back in 1993. I got the basics to develop real-life driving skills that I should've had ten years ago. And I realized how lucky these kids in this program were. With the knowledge they acquired, chances are they'll be some of the most aware drivers on the road - teens or otherwise.

A Learning Tool for Teens

Driver's Edge founder Jeff Payne

What Driver's Edge teaches are accident avoidance skills - real-life braking and steering maneuvers that are rarely taught in any driver's training course. And with cars - new Camaros and BMWs - that would cause most parents to cringe with uneasiness.

As parents arrived with their children, I could see the apprehension in their eyes: My son, behind the wheel of a Camaro…with a race car driver? Remind me how this is going to help?

Driver's Edge founder Jeff Payne was quick to address that parental concern as the program began. "No offense," he said to the group of 70 teens (and their parents), "but it's not mom and dad sitting next to you. These [instructors] are professional drivers. These people understand how a vehicle operates at its limit."

Payne, a professional race car driver and instructor, designed every aspect of Driver's Edge, which was launched in Las Vegas in 2001. The program operated locally until this year, when it began touring the country with help from sponsors such as Bridgestone, Sprint and AAA. He previously operated an exclusive driving school that catered to an elite clientele of famous actors (including Tom Cruise and Charlie Sheen) and U.S. Air Force personnel. Driver's Edge was the result of his dream to educate teen drivers in order to save lives.

"If you actually teach kids how to drive, it'll make a difference," he said as way of introduction as kids and parents congregated under a large tent in the parking lot of Michigan's Pontiac Silverdome. "We're not taught how to drive, we're taught how to pass a test."

Statistics on teen driving fatalities and accidents rotated on a large screen as reminders of why Driver's Edge is in existence - to educate teen drivers and in turn, save lives.

Every hour one person will be killed due to a teen driver.

Automobile accidents are the number one cause of death for people between the ages of 1-37.

And the statistic that I know all too well is true: During high school, teenagers will lose approximately one classmate per year to an automobile fatality. I clearly remember the faces of those classmates who perished in senseless car crashes; in particular, one friend who had been driving too fast around a sharp curve at night and lost control of his car. His body was so mangled that the funeral home insisted on a closed casket for his visitation.

A Teen's Story

Ashley Biersach
Ashley Biersach was confined to a wheelchair for a year after the car accident - she just started walking on her own in July 2003.

Suddenly, the pop music playing in the background of the tented area was replaced by the chilling sounds of wailing sirens, 911 dispatchers and horrified, screaming teenage voices. It was the beginning of a ten-minute documentary detailing a fatal accident in Las Vegas on May 9, 2002. Five teenage girls had just left a fast-food restaurant for lunch and were on their way back to school when the driver - who didn't have a license - lost control of the vehicle. The white Ford Thunderbird smashed into a light pole in the median, completely splitting the car down the middle. The two girls in the front of the car died; two girls in the back seat were seriously injured.

And then there was 16-year-old Ashley Biersach, whose lower body was crushed by the wreckage. With her right foot severed, she managed to give CPR to her unconscious friend while waiting for the paramedics. At the hospital, doctors were forced to amputate Ashley's right leg - and they informed the teenager that almost every bone in her lower body was broken by the crash.

And as images of Ashley, crying in her hospital bed just days after the accident, appeared on the screen, parents in the audience reached for their children. With tears in her eyes, a mother placed a kiss on her daughter's cheek. A father, choking back emotion, gave his son's shoulder a quick squeeze. And I bit my lip, dabbing at tears that were threatening to spill.

The images on the screen faded to black and a girl on crutches made her way to the front of the tent. It was Ashley.

"I just turned 18 yesterday. I'm not a parent, I'm not a teacher. I'm just a kid like you, wanting to make a difference."
--Ashley Biersach

"My two best friends died in that car accident you just saw," she began, emotion catching in her throat. "They died for no reason - it's something that could've been prevented. If [the driver] took this class, she would've known what to do."

She looked out at the audience, eyes lingering on the rows of teenagers. "When this happens, it doesn't just hurt you, it hurts your parents, your family, everyone you know."

"I was on life support for five days," she continued. "I had to go on living with that pain and knowing that a stupid mistake caused it. I want you guys to know it can happen to anyone - it can happen to you."

"I just started walking a week ago after being in a wheelchair for one year, not knowing if I'd ever walk again. My friends stopped coming around; it's too much reality for them." She paused, tears in her eyes. "I just turned 18 yesterday. I'm not a parent, I'm not a teacher. I'm just a kid like you, wanting to make a difference."

And as Ashley said those words, applause erupted from the parents…and the teens. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. The reality was standing bravely in front of us all - a testament to the strength of the human spirit and steadfast perseverance. A reminder of all that could change with one careless mistake behind the wheel.

This trip to Detroit was one of the first times Ashley was on an airplane since the crash, and she'll be making many more flights in the future. The 18-year-old has vowed to continue speaking to teens through Driver's Edge - knowing her message, still painful and raw, will undoubtedly make a mark on teen drivers.

As the teens made their way to the driving courses, some stopped to give Ashley a few words of thanks. Parents hugged her, talking in low tones about bravery. She nodded, smiled and replied quietly before following us out into the early morning sun.

Chatty on the Skid Path

I get chatty when I'm nervous. When I finally slid into the driver's seat of one of the Camaros, my mouth suddenly went into overdrive and I was powerless to stop it.

"So, um, I just floor it?" I asked Paul Charsley, the race car driver sitting next to me. A guy who seemed entirely too relaxed for being in a soon-to-be-out-of-control car. "And then I keep flooring it until I turn?"

I looked out at the skid pad course, just one large circle of pavement recently wet down to simulate driving in the rain. My heart decided to join my mouth in overdrive and before I knew it, I was talking in tempo with the thumping in my chest. I was more nervous than the teenagers…and that scared me.

"You accelerate until I tell you to stop accelerating," Paul said, a trace of amusement in his voice.

"Right," I replied immediately with white-knuckled grip on the wheel. "Right. OK. Sure."

"You can go now," Paul prompted me after I spent a solid ten seconds staring blankly out the windshield, only aware of how clammy my hands had become.

"Right," I repeated, shaking my head and focusing. Once I was ready, I pressed on the accelerator as hard as I could - something I had never done before. The initial rush of excitement was over the moment I hit the turn and realized I was still accelerating - that Paul hadn't instructed to lift off the gas yet.

Excitement was quickly replaced by a healthy dose of fear. So this was oversteer - what happened when rear wheels lost traction, making the car spin. My job was to correct the oversteer and recover the car. Sounded easy, right? I had ten years of driving experience under my belt - no problem.

But, well, it was. The car spun and my hands tried in vain the correct the car's path. We spun. And spun. And finally careened to a stop, my body jerking against the taut seatbelt.

I exhaled loudly and looked at Paul. I felt like I was fifteen again, back in that driver's training car. Except Paul was twenty times cooler than my old driver's instructors - plus he was intent on having me drive faster next time around the loop. That and he never mentioned McDonald's once. Oh, and he offered actual instruction.

"You're not looking where you want the car to go," he said simply. "You're looking at the cones. If you look at the cones, the car's going to hit the cones. Keep your eyes focused on where you want to go."

(He also told me that I was holding the wheel all wrong - something I've been working on fixing ever since the Driver's Edge class. It's so hard to break a habit I've had since I was 16, but I'm getting there.)

I drove the course four more times, getting a bit better each time. Then I got be a passenger in the back seat when the real teenage drivers got their chance to drive. One girl - a gorgeous thing resembling an Olsen twin - spun the car so many times I thought my seat belt would snap. It didn't, thankfully.

Once we piled out of the car, I realized I was grinning. I noticed a similar look of euphoria on the face of a teen whose cell phone was to his ear. As he walked by, I overheard him say, "It was the coolest thing I've ever done!" And he continued to brag to his friend about his skid pad experience until we moved on to the next course.

I Brake for Barefoot Moms

Driver's Edge
One of the BMWs in the Driver's Edge fleet.

Another one of the coolest (and perhaps most embarrassing, depending on the circumstances) moments for a teen participating in Driver's Edge is when the instructors ask the parents to take a spin on the course.

For the ABS braking exercise and evasive lane exercise, I decided to hop in the car with two moms. This is when I am fully prepared to admit that I had much more in common with the moms than with the teens - there, I've said it. I'm not 17 anymore. Now, let's move on.


he first mom climbed into the driver's seat confidently enough. She glanced at professional driver J.F. Veilleux, seated comfortably in the passenger seat, and started off with a question that took us all off-guard.

"So, is this when I take off my shoes?"

The other mom and I, both in the back seat, exchanged amused looks.

J.F. just stared at the woman for a moment. After a long pause, he finally spoke, his French-Canadian accent playing over the words: "What did you just say?"

"My shoes…this is when I normally take them off," the mom stammered, the tone of her voice suggesting that it was just dawning on her that this was, in fact, perhaps not the safest thing to do.

"And what do you do with your shoes?" J.F. asked slowly.

"I kick them under the seat."

"And what happens to your shoes when you have to slam on the brakes suddenly?"

"They…would slide forward?"

"Yes," J.F. smiled slightly. "They could get stuck under the pedals."

"Oh. So I should keep the shoes on?"

"Yes," J.F. answered. "Yes you should."

The driver crooked her head over her shoulder to send me a quick glance. "You're going to use that in your story, aren't you?"

The laugh I had been stifling finally came out. "Oh yes. How could I not?"

She ended up doing quite well on the exercises - one in which the driver is supposed to accelerate until the instructor says to brake. And brake hard. Hard enough to feel the ABS working. Another exercise combines the sudden braking with a sharp left turn. And yet another exercise - the most fun - simulates making a violent evasive lane change in order to avoid hitting an obstacle in the roadway.

The moms did well. We were reminded again and again to keep our eyes focused on where we wanted the car to go. It's the simplest thing - yet the hardest to do, especially for those of us who have been driving for decades.

A teen, holding a camera, waved to his mom (the one with the shoe issues) as we emptied out of the BMW.

"Hey, your mom just went through the braking course," I informed the boy.

"Heh, I know." He snickered, aiming the camera at us. "And I got it all on tape."

There's More?

Besides the obvious video blackmail material your teen will procure from a Driver's Edge experience, he or she will walk away with more confidence, more knowledge and hopefully, more respect for driving.

The four-hour Driver's Edge program is completely free, thanks to sponsor support. It fills quickly, so make sure to register as soon as you can. The program is offered in two sessions per day, each with about 75 students. There are only a few locations left in the 2003 season (see below), but it looks like Driver's Edge will be around next year to help educate another round of teens - and parents - on safety maneuvers behind the wheel.

And the benefits of keeping your shoes on while doing so.