The vehicle pictured above is called the “Skid Monster.” It’s late model Toyota Camry with casters attached to the rear that cause the car to handle the way you’d expect a Toyota Camry with casters instead of wheels to handle. Larry S. Roberts, the duly elected Fayette County Attorney in Lexington, KY, would like to teach your children how to tame it.
The state of driver’s education in this country is generally considered to be abysmal. One by one school districts across the country have dropped driver’s ed from their curriculums, sacrificed along with the majority of vo- tech classes on the altar of common core standards, No Child Left Behind, and efforts to “teach to the test.” Lexington hasn’t had driver’s ed in the public schools in decades. The cost of private instruction can be prohibitive. Kentucky Driving School, which operates out of the Louisville area, charges $65 an hour for instruction to teach the basics of automotive operation. Small wonder, then, that most parents opt to do it themselves. Whether or not they are good drivers themselves doesn’t much matter.
Larry Roberts has been the Fayette County Attorney, which makes him the chief prosecutor in the lower District Courts, since 2006. The idea for the Fayette County Attorney Driver Education Program was hatched in 2010 and the first class was in 2011. Over 350 students have made it through the program so far.
Talk to Larry about the program for a few minutes and it becomes pretty clear that this is a true labor of love for him and not just a feel- good public relations stunt to get him through the next election. A lot of thought has gone into the program, particularly with an eye towards keeping it viable after he leaves office. The biggest component of that vision is how the program is funded. Unlike most training programs sponsored by a government agency, this program runs primarily on private as opposed to public dollars. In the brave, new world of fiscal responsibility forced on all levels of government by the 2008 economic meltdown dedicated funding streams of tax dollars for new initiatives are all but impossible to get and grants from the Federal or state governments dry up almost as soon as they are given. A 501(c) 3 non- profit was set up in order to maximize charitable donations to fund the project.
The cars are donated by the area’s largest Toyota dealer. The wiring for the doublewide portable classroom that currently houses the project was donated by a local contractor. An asphalt driving pad owned by the city of Lexington was used early on, but numerous scheduling conflicts with various city agencies made it a hassle. A new dedicated pad was built next to the old pad using donated material and labor. Straight corporate sponsorships of cash are accepted as well, with insurance giant State Farm being one of the largest contributors.
So what is the program and what makes it different from the public school driver’s ed classes of old? First of all, it is not a basic driver’s course. Your kid won’t be taught how to parallel park or make a 3- point turn. Participants are required to have either their driver’s license or their learner’s permit coupled with a minimum of 20 hours of driving instruction logged into their Kentucky Driving Manual. A minimum amount of driving experience is necessary because as Billy Fryer, the chief instructor, put it to me “If you put a kid who’s never driven a car behind the wheel of the skid monster and yanked it out from under him, he’d never drive again.”
The fundamental flaw in driver’s education as it is normally done, either by parents or professional instructors, is that it can’t really teach a kid what to do when control is lost. You can tell a novice driver that he should “turn the steering wheel in the direction that the back of the vehicle is skidding,” as the Kentucky Driving Manual advises. Until someone actually feels the rear wheels start to come around in an attempt to meet their front counterparts, it’s all just words on a page.
In order to learn, the kids need to drive. And drive they do. The course is 20 hours, spread out in four-hour blocks over five days. About 5 hours are spent in the classroom. The rest of the time, the kids are divided up into groups of three spread out into the skid monster and two regular cars in which they practice basic vehicle control while awaiting their turn in the barrel. Class size is limited to nine participants in order to help maximize the amount of time behind the wheel for each student.
The skid monster is clearly the star of the show. It’s operation is fiendishly simple. The student starts off gently in a straight line. Gentle inputs from the steering wheel will turn the car without drama. The instructor, seated in the front passenger seat, simply reaches over and gives the wheel a solid yank, which causes the rear end to step out. Panic braking or wild swings of the wheel in an effort to counter steer by the novice driver make it worse. However, with practice they learn how to control the skid by only dialing in the amount of steering they need to in order to pull out. As the week progresses, they learn how to handle the movement in curves and while avoiding obstacles. By the end of the course they are able to run a slalom in the skid monster.
On public roads there’s no way to allow a novice to learn by doing when it comes to skid recovery. What’s needed is a 5 acre asphalt pad built on top of a landfill, with plenty of empty space on three sides of it for a teenager to spin a Camry into the weeds. (The fourth side is occupied by metal bleachers, but they sit empty until graduation on the last day of the five-day course. Hopefully, the kids have all mastered the skid monster before their loved ones are quite literally placed in the line of fire.)
In addition to the 20 hours of instruction time, there’s an additional 9- 10 hours of homework over the course of the week. On the third day much of the classroom time is spent on texting while driving. The kids take their phones and try to text one another while operating a driving simulator. The course starts off at low speeds and in light traffic, but the instructors dial up the speed and obstacles as the kids continue to try to text. As with the skid monster the point is to show the kids why texting and driving isn’t compatible instead of just talking about it.
Cost of the program is a mere $200 per pupil, ridiculously cheap compared to other driving schools. Reliance on charitable contributions for the vast majority of the operating budget and the fact that the school is not for profit keeps that cost down, but Roberts feels that the participants (or, rather, their parents) should pay something to have skin in the game. Most of the kids start the program somewhat sullen and grumpy at having to take the course, particularly during the summer, but they get interested quickly and remain so through the course. So far only one participant has had to be dismissed. The program is limited to Kentucky residents, but is open to student drivers from outside of Fayette County at the same rate as Fayette County residents.
The immediate future of the program is bright, but the long-term future of the program is murky. As long as Mr. Roberts remains in his position the program will have in advocate. His long-term goal would be to have the public school system take it over. On the one hand the powers that be in the school system have expressed interest and tentative plans for a new high school include a driving pad.
On the other hand, the schools haven’t been particularly interested in adopting what parts of the program they could today. During the winter months, when early darkness prohibits the use of the skid pad, Billy Fryer has tried with little success to bring the simulators into the schools in order to let more kids experience the texting while driving portion of the course. The cost is free and all he asks of the schools is a place to put the simulators and help scheduling the kids to participate in groups of 14 at a time. He’s had very few takers.
Hopefully someone will pick p the torch after Mr. Roberts leaves office. For now there’s a very reasonably priced program that will actually teach a young driver how to control a car in an emergency situation that’s begging to be adopted, copied, and stolen for the benefit of novice drivers across the country. It’s a program my kid will be enrolled in when she gets her permit in a couple of years and I encourage others to do the same.