By Sarah Lee - Sarah Lee Marks is a certified, licensed vehicle sales professional in Southern Nevada.
When I asked Jeff Payne, Henderson resident and founder of Drivers Edge how it all began, he gave me that “aw shucks maam” look that belied his Indy race car days. “I always wanted to be a race car driver. At 17 I went to the Jim Russell Racing School in Riverside, California. The experience was so rewarding I went to work for the racing school full-time.” At 21, Jeff began his competitive driving career in Europe and Japan. He earned the respect of his peers among racings’ elite inner circle. When he wasn’t competing, he taught his brand of driving techniques to the well-heeled Hollywood crowd; including Tom Cruise, Jon Bon Jovi, Charlie Sheen and JFK Jr.
Several years ago he convinced his employer, Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Company, to sponsor a program designed to teach accident avoidance techniques to young drivers. The Realtime racing team stepped up to help with logistics as Drivers Edge prepared to take it’s message across the country. From Cardiff to Indy, thirty of the world’s most talented racing professionals regularly volunteer their time when Payne calls. Today the Las Vegas Speedway is home to the nationally recognized Drivers Edge program. “Drivers Edge was born out of my frustration with everyone pointing fingers and blaming these kids for being "out of control", yet no one had ever taken the time to show them how to drive in today’s traffic congested, high speed environment. I kept thinking how do we expect kids to have any respect when they have never been shown what their limitations are? That's why so many kids have such a video game mentality with driving.”
As the newly minted licensee’s arrive for their four hour Drivers Edge program, they gather in small groups to take a pre-test of their driving attitude. Questions include: Are you a good driver? Are your friends good drivers? How would you react in a particular driving situation? Fifty or more 16-18 year olds become silent when the sound of ambulance sirens and television footage jumps from the movie screen in the front of the room. Fifteen minutes later Ashley Biersach maneuvers her wheelchair into position and speaks in a soft, deliberate voice; “That was me. Caught between my two best friends, I couldn’t move.” Two years later, the tears still flow as she tells the story of racing back to school from an off-campus lunch. “If Ashley, (the driver) had known how to react when the car started to spin, my friends would still be alive today. Please take this course seriously. Pay attention to what they say, it could save your life one day. I had dreams, like you. They are gone. My friends are gone; I will never see them again. Think about all those people in your life, the ones you love, the next time you get behind the wheel.”
Jeff and his team stand before the class, their collective racing resume leaves no question about who rules this track. The kids are separated into groups. The instructors explain the purpose and procedure for each exercise before letting the teens loose on the track. “We are NOT teaching the fundamentals of how to operate a vehicle. We are giving kids a reality check and showing them what can happen in an emergency situation and allowing them to experience it, firsthand, in a controlled environment. We actually place the kids behind the wheel so they can experience what happens to a vehicle in an extreme situation, and because of that it makes kids more aware, have greater respect and help erase that video-game mentality.”
Ohh’s and ash’s greet the shiny new trucks, sports coupes and luxury sedans donated by a local dealership. The Las Vegas Fire Department waters the course for the skid exercise. Cones in place. Flags up. Richie Hearn, Las Vegas 500 winner and Drivers Edge instructor, positions himself in the front passenger seat. “You can drive every vehicle here, as often as time allows,” Payne announces as the kids vie for wheel position. The parents watch, wondering aloud if that was their kid taking out a row of cones. When offered an opportunity to take a spin, I leap at the chance, much to the chagrin of my seventeen year old. My co-pilot, SPEED Tour driver Rene Villeneuve, suggests retraining my grip on the steering wheel from the 2 and 10 position to 5 and 7, allowing me to pass the wheel from one hand to the other, rather than crossing my arms over. Or worse, taking my hand(s) off the wheel. Years of driving in ice and snow back in Boston, had me turning the vehicle into the skid, foot off the gas. Wrong again! Maintain focus, point the vehicle in the direction I am supposed to be going and give it SOME gas.
While the teens wrap-up their class with a post-test, “We will be monitoring the success of this program by your ability to avoid accidents.” Jeff explains. I ask him what we, as parents, can do to keep our new drivers safe. “Parents need to be involved in their children's lives. Car collisions are the number one killer of teens. Most parents don't realize that. Many kids are more afraid of calling mom and dad for a ride, than they are of taking a chance behind the wheel. Communicate with your kids. Be concerned with who he or she is driving with, other young drivers.”
Nevada has instituted a Graduated Driver Licensing program for students between the ages of 16 and 19. The time between gaining a driving permit and full driver’s license was changed to incorporate a minimum of thirty hours of daytime driving practice and ten hours of practice driving at night. Kids are asked to keep a log that a parent or legal guardian must certify. After passing the written and practical DMV motor skills test, a teen driver must wait up to 90 days before he/she obtains an unrestricted license. A curfew violation with the 30-60-90 day period can push the process back a year. “Is graduated licensing working?” I question Payne. “No...Not at the moment. No one is taught how to drive. You are only taught how to pass a test. Learning the basic fundamentals isn't going to properly prepare you for all the hazards of everyday driving. People need defensive driving experience...drivers of all ages. Our GDL system is weak. Stricter standards need to be put in place. It's just common sense; more kids are killed driving with other passengers and at night. There is new legislation being drafted to provide us a better GDL system. We need it or more kids will continue to die.”
The statistics speak for themselves. According to the Washington Times, a young driver is killed in a car crash every 62 minutes and every hour of every day someone is killed by a teen driver. Last year over 8,000 young drivers were involved in fatal crashes, 300,000 more were injured and more than 1.6 million were involved in vehicle crashes. In fact, an entire classroom full of teenagers is killed every day by auto crashes. Sixty-two percent of teenage passenger deaths occur in accidents in which another teen was driving. Thanks to Jeff Payne and the Drivers Edge team, some of our children are better prepared for their commute around the valley.