Driver's Edge: Getting Through to Teens

If you're a parent, you have to be nervous about teen driving trends. The statistics are alarming: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. In 2001, more than 8,000 15- to 20-year-old drivers were involved in fatal crashes. Although this age group makes up only nine percent of the U.S. population, 15 percent of fatal crashes in 2000 involved youths.

What's at fault here? Why do teen drivers, most of whom are gifted with better eyesight and reflexes than older drivers, so frequently succumb to traffic accidents? Many experts attribute these alarming statistics to poor or non-existent driver education.

"Teenagers are learning how to pass a test but not learning how to drive," said Jeff Payne, a professional racecar driver and instructor who founded the non-profit Driver's Edge organization in 1999. "Rather than pointing fingers after a teenager dies in an accident, we should be teaching them how to drive better in the first place."

In 2002, Driver's Edge reached 1,200 young drivers in Las Vegas with solid, hands-on instruction. After gaining the support of local students, parents, teachers, and public officials, Payne wanted to expand the program to the rest of the country, so he approached Bridgestone/Firestone, since the company has shown a strong interest in driver safety through its Drive & Learn programs and tiresafety, a Web site devoted to teaching consumers about tire safety and maintenance. This year with the support and sponsorship of Bridgestone/Firestone, Payne expects the nationwide program to reach 6,000 students. The program is structured to go well beyond the lesson taught in typical high school driver's ed courses.

"Experience has shown that young drivers who receive the type of training provided by Driver's Edge are better prepared to safely respond to all sorts of driving conditions," said Mark A. Emkes, chairman, CEO and president of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire. "For this reason, driver education of this group is extremely important. We are proud to be a part of this outstanding program and this excellent opportunity to make a difference in youth driving safety."

Before launching Driver's Edge, Payne spent five years researching and planning its curriculum. The 4-and-1/2-hour program, which involves classroom and on-course instruction, teaches students skills in evasive lane changes, anti-lock and panic braking maneuvers and skid control. In the classroom, students learn about driving after a tire blowout or in icy conditions. On the course, students are taught vehicle dynamics, load transfer and techniques for driving in the rain. They are also able to identify and experience the differences in front- and rear-wheel-drive vehicles.

The 2003 program kicked off this past weekend in Phoenix and will be available in 10 other cities this year. It represents an incredible value to the students who take the course.

"Comparable programs would cost about $450 per person, but we're able to offer Driver's Edge at no cost to the students, thanks to the support of companies like Bridgestone/Firestone," Payne said. "Many states have done away with behind-the-wheel driving instruction in public schools, so there's a real need for this kind of hands-on education."

In addition to Bridgestone/Firestone, AAA and Sprint are co-sponsors of the 2003 Driver's Edge program. AAA's Merry Banks says that properly educating youths how to drive safely is the most important thing that can be done in the field of traffic safety.

"Driving is complicated," said Banks, senior manager of Community & Safety Services in AAA's traffic safety office for Northern California, Utah and Nevada. "It takes time and practice to develop safe driving habits. Programs like this help our newest drivers develop the skills they need to be safer drivers."

Students may register to attend one of the 10 remaining events by calling 1-877-633-EDGE (3343).