Column: Drivers’ Ed must return

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Penny-wise, pound foolish attitudes just don’t add up with lives on the line

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

My old racing helmet and gloves — without hours and hours of training, teaching and studying even these wouldn't have kept me safe on a racetrack. For young drivers, selt belts and air bags aren't enough to keep them safe, either.

By all rights, I should be dead.

It was 1981, and I was driving an old Toyota Corolla faster than I should with studded snow tires. A buddy was in the car and I was showing off. I made it through the first half of an elongated “S” turn, but lost the back end and careened off the road to the left, as the road turned right. Somehow, and 30 years later, I still don’t know how, I managed to cut the wheel right, the car went up on two wheels and struck a road sign on the left side of the car.

I managed to get the car back on the road, and down on four wheels and back in the right lane. I pulled off the road to try to collect my wits, such as they were. Just then, a giant dump truck came up the road in the opposite direction. Had I been 30 seconds later, I’d have been killed right then and there. Friends and classmates were not as lucky, and it seemed like a more than annual ritual to attend a funeral.

As a young newspaper reporter, I covered them over and over, teens killed in senseless accidents — one still haunts me, when four kids died in a fiery wreck in the fog.

So you can imagine the dreadful sense of de ja vu I have now, living in Unionville.

Except of course, we actually had drivers’ ed — which while woefully inadequate is better than nothing, which is what you get at Unionville if you can’t or won’t pony up $300.

I’m one of the lucky ones and I went on to really learn how to drive, graduating from Bertil Roos’ Grand Prix Advanced racing course at Pocono Raceway, and spent years completing in SCCA National Road Rally and Autocross events. Somewhere, buried in a closet is a box of trophies — but with a pair of 10-year-olds at home, driving fast isn’t something I want to glorify, not before I can teach them vehicle dynamics, apexes, contact patches and why a car does what it does under a handling load or in a panic situation, lessons I passed onto their older brothers, both UHS grads.

I know what it takes to drive 150 MPH and do it safely — I’ve done it — and it takes classroom time, time bench racing (when you sit and just think your way through a racing lap, over and over) and track time. Simulators, of course, are helpful. But it takes time, teaching and effort — whether you’re strapping yourself into a race car or a Honda Civic.

So I have to share Brian Miller’s frustration with the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education, Monday night. Brian lost his daughter Abby to a senseless accident that, potentially, a minimal amount of professional driving training might have averted. Instead of just grieving, he and his wife swore that they would do everything in their power to make sure that no other parent would have to go through what they have. They founded Safe At Home, The Abby Miller Foundation. The Millers have raised money and awareness on the dangers of youth driving and been able to donate simulators to Unionville High School, and hope to be able to donate 15 — enough for an entire class.

Miller, during his passionate plea Monday night for the school board and administration, was too much of a gentleman to suggest the insanity of in one moment, arguing to keep a computer applications class as essential, and then dismissing drivers’ ed as, well, not quite so much.

I, being both a highly trained performance driver and a former long-time technology magazine editor can unequivocally tell you this: no one, no one ever died from lacking Excel skills. And frankly, any ninth grader who is not somewhat capable in either the Microsoft Office suite, or the Apple Pages/Keynote/Numbers combo, Open Office or Google Docs is probably in big academic trouble before ninth grade. Seventh grade is the absolute latest that should be taught, as far as I can see.

That brings us to the rather embarrassing argument that parents should be responsible for teaching driving to their kids. Why not algebra, then? Heaven knows a lack of algebra skill is not deadly (I’d be long gone if it were so). Why not Consumer and Family Science? Why not Spanish?

The simple reason is this: all require professional training to teach properly. As does driving.

Drivers’ ed — free and mandatory — needs to be restored to the curriculum of Unionville High School. Is a teen life worth $85,000 — the estimated cost?

How about your life?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR — In addition to serving as Editor/Publisher of The Unionville Times and its sister sites, Mike was Executive Editor of Home Theater Magazine, Editor-in-Chief of E-Gear Magazine, and a featured contributing editor to Home Entertainment, Digital TV, C/NET, E/TOWN and various other tech outlets — in addition to covering the digital technology revolution, he also served as a judge for the Codies, the annual software industry awards for a number of years. He also covered IndyCar and NASCAR racing during the 1980s and entirely too many funerals of young people killed in cars.

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5 Comments

  1. Keith Knauss says:

    Actually, John, I didn’t say everyone could afford the $300 course fee.
    .
    What I said was that any parent who can afford the $1,000 or $2,000 additional each year to add their teenager to their insurance policy can afford $300 for a drivers ed course. And let’s remember that the $300 course fee is more than compensated for by insurance discounts given to students that have taken a drivers ed course.
    .
    I agree with you that a “strong and comprehensive” driving course is needed and one that requires “mastery of the skill sets of safe driving”. And UCF makes that course available during school hours and after. All we’re arguing about now is who pays for it – the parent or their neighbors.

  2. John says:

    I am confused. One minute Mr. Knauss says the community can’t afford a 1.4% tax increase because of the economic conditions and the next minute, he feels that the community’s parents can afford the fee. Which is it?
    As far as all of us being dependent on parents to make the right decision to have their child take the course, I’d rather not. Any day after Unionville High School dismisses, young drivers traveling too fast, too distracted can be seen in the area. It would be interesting to see the statistics documenting the number of accidents high school drivers are involved in within 2 hours of school dismissal. Where did they learn that driving behavior?
    A strong and comprehensive curriculum that requires all students to show mastery of the skill sets of safe driving and exposes them to the dangers of reckless driving seems to me to be a small price to pay to keep ALL members of a community safe on the roads. Hopefully, the board will make the right decision mindful of the wise words of Mike McGann, Brian Miller and others who support them in the community.

  3. Keith Knauss says:

    Mike,

    I think it needs to be repeated that driver’s ed is available both during school hours and after school hours for a fee of $300.
    .
    Let’s dispense with the “some parents can’t afford it” argument quickly. Anyone who has had a teenage driver knows that insurance premiums will increase by multiples of $300 when that teenage driver is insured. If the parent can afford the insurance, they can afford the $300 class fee.
    .
    We rely on our well educated, responsible parents in UCF to make many critical decisions for their children. Drivers ed is another one of those critical decisions and, personally, I had both my daughters take the course. The district helps in that decision-making process by providing an inexpensive, convenient drivers ed course available to any parent who decides it’s important for their child.

  4. Leigh Mellinger Letsinger says:

    I am originally from Unionville and graduated in 1981. I have experienced in the last two weeks in separate accidents, two 18 year old boys of my community in Upper Township, Tuckahoe, New Jersey, killed in an auto accident and a motorcycle accident. The Unionville High School needs to keep the driver education program to help educate students on all aspects of driving. There are more cars than ever on the road and the school, as well as, the parents need to give these kids as much instructional and hands-on education as possible. We want all who use the roads to be safe. I tell my boys everyday that speed kills and they need to be safe and aware on the roads. KEEP THE PROGRAM, IT COULD SAFE A LIFE!!!!!

    • Mike McGann says:

      Thanks for the comment, but Unionville discontinued Drivers Ed in 1991. Finally, momentum seems to be building to restore it. Probably a fact I should have mentioned in my column — so thanks for pointing it out.

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