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Getting That Extra Edge

Driver's Edge Program Keeps Teen Drivers Safe

by Jessica Howell

She was driving a Pontiac G6 sedan – pedal pushed full throttle, hands tightly gripping the wheel as she pulled into a sharp ninety degree turn, purposely inducing a fish-tail skid that sent the car every which way on the wet pavement before she regained control and veered the vehicle between two neon green track cones.

She glanced toward the passenger’s seat where she was greeted with a satisfied nod of approval from race car driver, and instructor for the day, Dominic Cicero.

“How old are you exactly?” I ask the young driver from my white knuckled position in the backseat.

She turns toward me and coyly smiles, “Fourteen and nine months.”

She is a teen driver – well, technically, she holds a driving permit. But here on the Michigan State Fair Grounds asphalt, she’s as much of a participant as anyone. Among her peers, ages 14 – 21, Amanda is honing her driving skills with the help of Bridgestone’s Driver’s Edge program. A free (yes, free!) program that tours the country teaching teens the driving skills they don’t learn in typical driver’s education programs.

Says organization founder and former professional race car driver, Jeff Payne, “None of us are really taught how to drive [in driver’s education classes,] we’re taught how to pass a test.”

Payne likens the driver’s education system to backyard pools. Kids have died in pools, he says, so we now require that fences be built around pools. But why, he questions, is nobody teaching the kids how to swim?

It is for that reason that Payne and his team of racing professionals, a.k.a. class instructors, have set out to inform, educate and sharpen the driving skills of America’s youth - and myself. So what exactly does that entail?

Driver’s Edge is a mobile classroom that tours the nation, stopping on this particular day, in Detroit. Parents can sign up their kids, or if they're over 18, drivers can register themselves at (Waiting lists are available if classes are filled in your hometown, or you can sign up to be notified if Driver’s Edge has yet to schedule a program there.)

My Driver’s Edge session began at yawn-inducing 8:00 am on a Saturday morning (there was also a 1:00 session available for those teens who rarely emerge from bed before noon.) Starbucks coffee was available - which I took full adantage of - as well as an assortment of doughnuts to perk up the weary-eyed and their parents.

Michigan State Troopers roamed near the resgistration tables, where a short, painless pre- and post-test accounted for the only exasperated sighs heard escaping from teens. A brief, but dramatic video, and introduction discussion with Payne started the day before teens were split into groups by wristbands and herded off to their first station. (Parents were welcome to follow and observe.) My wristband was swathed in red and green and I followed as my group made its way toward our first stop: the skid course.

A large water truck stood omniously, workers pulling and pushing at hoses that pumped and sprayed water onto pavement already sudsing bubbles from soapy detergent. The idea was to create prime conditions for skidding.

Along with two other teens and an instructor, I took a seat in the sedan. The first couple of laps were demos, where our instructor showed us how we would accelerate, steer and then brake at what would hopefully be the controlled end of a skid. My stomach made small flips as he careened the car among the orange cones, showering a soft spray of water through our open windows at one point. I looked into the backseat as my fellow students clutched the sidedoors, both noticably anxious, but not enough so to wipe an exhilerated grin from their faces.

When my turn approached I plopped into the driver's seat, determined to give it my best I'm-not-even-a-little-bit-scared attitude. Pedal to the metal, the car lunged forward toward a wall of orange cones at which I'd make a sharp, 90 degree turn that would spin the car out of control momentarily. Waiting for the instructor's go-ahead, I kept forward nearing 50 mph, until at the seemingly last possible moment he commanded, "Okay, now!" and I pulled the steering wheel left quickly. Skidding ensued, pulling the car in different directions as I tried to follow the instructor's words of wisdom: keep your eyes focused on wherever you want the car to end up. Most drivers, our instructors explained, unintentionally steer their car right into the large, looming tree (or whatever other distraction) they're staring at.

Alas, as most things are, the staring/steering combo proved to be easier said than done. My eyes naturally followed the view directly before me. I tried again, and again, and finally managed to make it through the two correct cones fairly seamlessly - on my third lap.

Next up was an ABS and non-ABS braking exercise and an evasive lane change maneuver course where our necks were whipped repeatedly, in the name of future safety, of course. We learned how to avoid a collision when another vehicle comes to a dead stop while we're traveling behind at high speed. Smooth, quick but conicise steering, and hard braking make for the best fool-proof formula. We tried and tested until everyone felt comfortable firmly pressing the brake and screeching to a complete, solid stop.

A vehicle walk-around with Michael Moser taught us about the realities of buckling up, proper driving form and car care in a truly engaging, yet laughably humorous manner. Local law enforcement also presented a brief talk where teens were able to try on Fatal Vision Goggles – simulating the impairment of alcohol.

“It’s a chance for teens to experience scary situations in a controlled environment,” says Payne, who cites that 71 percent of Driver’s Edge graduates involved in a post-program collision feel the skills learned at Driver’s Edge helped prevent the collision from being worse.

And a learning experience it is. I left the program with a newfound respect for driving – and a greater feeling of control – something that would have served me well in my own teenage years, when I was armed with a driver’s permit and yearning for the open road.

And from the looks of it, all attendees of this program left feeling the same way. Not only had they picked up a wealth of car smart knowledge, they scored some free swag on their way out AND made their parents happy – all accomplished before noon on a Saturday morning. If only every day as a teenager were so sweet.