Saturday, March 30, 2019

Teen driver training and safety - how motorsports enthusiasts can help

I recently wrote an article for Ross Bentley's Speed Secrets Weekly newsletter on teen driver training and safety and how the racing and high performance driving community can help make a difference in the lives of our young ones. This story is about the experience my teenage son and I had at a recent Teen Driving Solutions school at Virginia International Raceway. The article struck a chord with many people and I was asked to publish it so that the public can access it (Speed Secrets Weekly is a paid subscription). Well, here it is...I truly hope it makes a difference in the safety (and life) of at least one young driver out there!

Teen Driver Training & Its Place in Our Sport
by Kevin Beaver
Being a life-long motorsports enthusiast, I’m always looking for ways to improve myself and the sports in which I participate. It started with motocross, evolved into high-performance driving events, and now my passion is racing in Spec Miata. One thing that has become clear to me is the battle zone that we’re subjected to on a daily basis is not the racetrack, but the streets! Good old-fashioned daily driving has gotten to the point where I actually feel much safer on the racetrack than I do driving down the road to the gym or the grocery store. I used to witness bad driving two or three times a year – now it is two or three times a day! You’ve seen it – drivers making last-second lane changes, staying stopped at green lights, and driving at night with their headlights off. Of course, you also see or hear about all the drivers getting into crashes that could’ve been prevented had they been more skilled behind the wheel. Dangerous behaviors and avoidable crashes seem to be a continual occurrence that’s getting worse every week. At least that’s my perception. It seems that the DDS/DMV is giving away driver’s licenses to young people with little or no real world experience, and no one’s doing anything about it.

It’s not all gloom and doom out there, though. There’s hope and it comes in the form of real world driver’s education. I've recently taken my fifteen-year-old son, Garrett, to two different driving schools. It was a true immersion into rules of the road, driving practice, and, most importantly, applying common sense when operating a vehicle on the street. I even got to participate, which was not only enjoyable, but educational. I can’t fully communicate how eye-opening this school was for the both of us. I realized all the things that I never thought to teach Garrett about the laws, car control, and overall safety when behind the wheel. To me, the best thing was that the controlled environment allowed Garrett to spend six full hours behind the wheel doing actual exercises in:
  • Threshold braking
  • Object and accident avoidance
  • Vehicle recovery when going off-road
  • Skidpad drifting
He also experienced the differences in car response and handling with traction control enabled and disabled. Because of these things, Garrett’s driving transformed following that one weekend. He went into the class with minimal training and experience with his newly-acquired learner’s permit. He went home a completely transformed driver – quite likely more knowledgeable and skilled than most other drivers on the road today. I look at things much differently now, as well. I learned many things from the school to make me a safer driver on public roads and, quite likely, a better racer to boot.

So, what does all of this have to do with high-performance driving and racing? Well, everything when you look at it from the perspective of it being our duty to pass along these skills to new generations. The interesting thing about these driving schools is that they’re not about “racing.” Many people with whom I’ve shared our driving school experience assume that it’s just lessons in how to go fast and learn how to hot rod. In fact, it is the very opposite. Instead of “going fast,” the school was about vehicle dynamics, how to control a car in sticky situations, and how to prevent crashes. These are things that most people don’t learn themselves, unless it’s the hard way in a motor vehicle accident. They’re certainly not things that are gleaned from purely reading a driving manual. The thing is, much of it is common sense, but that is clearly missing in our society today, in my opinion.

There’s a perception among many people that any type of high-performance driving and racing is bad. I was recently speaking with a seamstress about getting my racing fire suit altered and she asked what it was used for. When I told her, she pretended to smack my face, as if it was a bad thing to race cars. I wouldn’t trade anything for the skills I’ve acquired and developed driving on the racetrack that I’m able to translate to use on the street. Those skills have saved me multiple times and I’m guessing you’ve experienced the same.

Such knowledge is what we need to impart to new drivers. We need to somehow bridge the divide between this perception of the risky nature of racing and the craziness that’s happening on our streets.  We need to figure out what can be learned with the resources we have at our disposal at/around the racetrack. If your teen is not already doing so, there’s no easy way to predict whether he or she will be racing or driving at HPDEs in the future. That’s okay - we don’t necessarily need more racers or high-performance drivers. However, we do need regular street drivers who:
  • appreciate the responsibilities that come along with driving
  • understand what cars can and cannot do
  • know their own limitations
  • respect that drivers must always be in command of their vehicles
  • realize that choices have consequences
Perhaps, most of all, we need drivers who are grounded in driving and respect themselves enough so that they appreciate that other lives matter. This goes for newly-licensed teens and everyone else. With the rate that things are going downhill in terms of driver quality and the associated dangers, something has to give. There’s no way to know or even predict what can happen on the roads. That’s out of our control. But what is in our control is the choice to educate young and/or less experienced drivers so that they can at least be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.

Having driven for over three decades, including twelve years at speed on a racetrack, I can assure you that young drivers are not going to learn these skills on their own, no matter how much they think they know or how much their parents believe they’re teaching them “how to drive!” Although Garrett is proving to be a responsible and skilled driver, I'm likely going to enroll him in another teen driving school or two before he turns sixteen. I'll repeat all of this for his little sister, when the time comes.
I’m convinced that traditional driver’s ed is not the answer. It seems to do a good job at driver’s exam preparation, but not much else. Neither will a "Student Driver" sticker on the back of your child's car help. In fact, as discussed in a recent school, this can just put a target on your kid's back - someone for road-going bullies to aim for. Being a lover of freedom, I hesitate to say that expanded driver’s training “should be mandatory.” That said, given what’s going on today and what there is to lose, I think I could get behind that. It should at least be a lot more difficult to get and keep a driver’s license here in the U.S. Selfish as it may seem, I really don’t want someone else’s need for immediate gratification, distraction, or lack of skills behind the wheel to endanger the lives of my family and friends.

In my field of information security, there’s a saying “there’s no patch for stupid.” In other words, there’s no amount of software updates that can be applied to prevent the problem between the computer and the chair (the user). The same applies to driving. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to “fix” bad drivers. With driver-less cars becoming more prevalent in the future, driving as we know it may even become a thing of the past. Ugh! Still, there are plenty of opportunities for our younger generations to learn to not only drive properly and courteously, but to also be able to respond to situations that place them and others in danger.

I challenge you to think about this with your young ones. Start training them yourself. Pass along Ross’s webinars and related content to your kids. Sit down with them and look at it in the context of street driving. Sure, it’s not high-speed racetrack driving but most of the same concepts apply. If you don’t have kids, then do what you can to pass the word along to extended family members, friends, and colleagues. There are no doubt things that you - someone who has higher than average driving and car control skills - can do. You can offer up advice and encourage participation in the teen driving education events that are available. Perhaps you can donate your expertise and volunteer a day or two each year at one of the schools. The knowledge you impart to our less-experienced drivers might just help save a life in the future.
Again, we’re not necessarily looking to raise and foster more gearheads like ourselves (although that’s not a bad thing!). What we need to do, though, is foster more skilled and responsible drivers on our public streets and highways. Something must change. If not now, when?

- Kevin Beaver

Originally published in Speed Secrets Weekly #307 - March 19, 2019. Posted here with permission.

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