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SPECIAL REPORT: DRIVING SKILLS

Adults Are Going Back to School in Droves

Safety and performance driving courses are sprouting around the country. And judging from the accident statistics, it's about time.

October 01, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Grim reapings: About 42,000 people die on our highways each year--an American tragedy that comes surprisingly close to matching the total of GIs killed in 10 years of fighting in Vietnam.

Gladder tidings: That annual toll has remained pretty even for a decade, despite choking freeways and a population of vehicles and citizens growing at a rate of 1% per annum. Drunk-driving deaths are down. Thirty years ago 5.5 people died for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled; today the figure has shriveled to 1.5.

And expect that statistic to hold, experts say, and even fade lower as tens of thousands of Americans take command of their lives through adult driver education courses and high-performance motoring schools. All with a single aim: to improve driving skills that probably haven't budged--except to embrace bad habits--since we first sat in Dad's lap. You steered and shifted, and he worked brakes and the gas pedal.

"Over the past 30 years we have made tremendous strides in vehicle and highway engineering," says Lindsay Griffin III, a psychologist and traffic safety researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute at College Station. Broader and smoother highways, he explains, guardrails and escape roads, seat belts and air bags and side-impact protection may all be credited for the leveling of crash figures.

"Now, to quote a paper by B.J. Campbell," he says, citing another highway safety expert, "the relative value of studying human behavior might be the important priority."

America seems to be ahead of the suggestion:

* Twenty years ago, there were only three performance driving schools in Canada and the United States. There are now more than 60, offering everything from half-day classes in accident avoidance in family sedans to three-day courses that include track competition in open-wheel race cars. There's an off-road school in Mission Viejo, a stock-car school at California Speedway, a go-cart school at Ventura, even a drag-racing school at La Verne.

The California-born, Arizona-based pioneer Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving has been selling adult driver's education for 30 years ($250 for a half-day class, $3,950 for the three-day road racing school). Students train in factory-supplied Ford Mustangs; ages range from teens to Sun City septuagenarians. And this four-wheeled academy graduates 5,000 people a month.

"Classes are full through the end of December," says marketing director Chan Martinez. "Five percent of our students want to become race drivers, 20% are Walter Mittys seeking the high-speed experience, but 75% are ordinary people who have realized they are not the drivers they thought they were and want to improve their skills."

* Closer to home, at the Fast Lane Racing School at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond--where Edwards Air Force Base is a high-speed neighbor--monthly sessions are crowded. With some unusual attendees.

"When Clint Black's 100-city tour came to Southern California, 11 members of the band showed up for our one-day course," says owner-operator Danny McKeever. "We're also getting corporate groups--Longo Toyota and Morgan Stanley--and some police officers who had written off patrol cars because they had overdriven the tires.

"I get calls from parents of teenagers . . . but I don't teach 'em how to drive. What we are teaching is vehicle control, weight transfer, tire management, emergency braking and handling skids. We build instincts by doing something in a car, and then verbalizing it to make sense of what the car is doing, and then going out and doing it again."

* This summer, BMW announced it has dropped all promotional activities, even golf tournaments, to detour funds to a city-to-city road show that will put 30,000 potential owners through one-day skid, maneuvering and emergency braking training on closed courses.

"We're obviously interested in increased sales," says Karen Vondermeulen, an events manager for BMW. "But we also view this as refresher training for adults, no matter what car they choose to buy."

* The American Assn. of Retired Persons' 55-Alive brush-up courses are alive and well nationally. The Automobile Club of Southern California offers classroom retraining for mature drivers through its local offices. Benefits of such programs can include reduced insurance premiums for senior citizens, usually 10% for three years.

To anyone who has ever been tailgated, cut off, flipped off or forced to back off by a Mustang GT sweeping three freeway lanes without signaling, we are a nation of 179 million drivers with death wishes.

Truth is, researchers say, 94% of fatal crashes--representing an annual financial loss of $170 billion--are caused by driver error. Police officers no longer refer to "accidents" because that implies a twist of fate or the backhand of God. The new and official preference is "crashes and collisions."

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