Young drivers learn to handle unexpected

Baxter Sapp's unusual lesson started Saturday with a 40-mph spinout on a wet track.

As the charcoal gray VW came to a violent stop, the 16-year-old let out an excited yelp.

“That… was… siiiiiiick!” he said, smiling.

Baxter was one of about 200 teenagers from across the state gathered at Charlotte Knights stadium for a series of driving lessons unlike any given in public school.

The teens did not parallel park. They did not back through a series of cones or attempt a jerkless stop. Their goal Saturday was to learn how to handle a car when something goes wrong.

“Driver's education in America is basically a joke,” said Steven Tepper, CEO of Driver's Edge, a Las Vegas-based non-profit that teaches defensive driving for young people. “They are teaching kids how to pass a test, not how to handle a car.”

Driver's Edge is a nationally recognized youth driver's education program. Since its founding in 2002, it has worked with more than 45,000 teenagers and their parents.

Jeff Payne, the organization's founder, said he started the program because he saw a need in the community.

Car crashes are the top killer of Americans under the age of 24. Young drivers account for only 6 percent of drivers but represent about 13 percent of all driving deaths. Experts agree most of those deaths are due to inexperience.

Driver's Edge uses sports cars and professional drivers, most of them racing instructors. There are no gym teachers in Sansabelt pants, no sensible sedans with passenger-side brakes.

Officials teach the young drivers several aspects of driving, including car maintenance and the dangers of drunken driving. But the lectures are not what excite the kids. It's the hands-on participation.

“This isn't like the driver's ed class I took,” said Bill Sapp. “I wish I had learned some of this stuff as a kid.”

Sapp attended Saturday's program with his sons Baxter, 16, and Edward, 15. He said he signed up for the free program a year ago.

Over the course of four hours, his sons learned evasive lane maneuvers, controlled skidding and panic braking, among other skills.

Said Tepper: “If someone can't swim, you don't just put a fence around the pool. You teach them how to swim.”