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Sirena Rubinoff/Medill

Hydrolic arms on this donated BMW simulate the feeling of driving on ice. 

Teens learn driving skills from race car drivers at new Teen Driving Academy

by Sirena Rubinoff
July 03, 2007


Sirena Rubinoff/Medill

Students learn about car engines from an experienced Teen Driving Academy instructor.

It was a parent’s worst nightmare: five teenagers killed in three separate car crashes within minutes of Timothy Smith’s St. Charles home. 

“I knew I had to do something,” said Smith, father of three.  And as a professional race car driver, he was in a unique position to help.

Smith contacted professional drivers Craig Cunningham and Tony Kester, friends from the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, to talk about a solution.  Their answer -- the Teen Driving Academy -- is a specialized driving school that fills in the gaps traditional driver’s education leaves out. 

“The only way kids are going to keep from getting hurt and killed on the highway is to learn how to avoid accidents with aggressive maneuvers that only a race car driver really knows,” said Kester, a professional driver since 1972.

The three committed fathers and race car drivers pooled their driving experience and an investment of $30,000, in combination with a minority partnership with the Autobahn Country Club of Joliet, to create a school that would equip young drivers with the skills they need to survive on the road today. 

The Teen Driving Academy opened its doors in late June to the first class of five students and two parents.   The one-day all-inclusive program costs $495 for teens and $99 for parents, which covers the cost of employee salaries, insurance and car maintenance.

“This class could conceivably save a life,” said parent Tom Gallow, whose daughter was among the first to take the driving course.  “You read about accidents every weekend and if this could help avoid even one of those, it’s well worth the $500 for my daughter’s safety.”

Gallow’s daughter, Deanna, 18, said, “Driver’s education just teaches the rules of the road. [It] doesn’t teach you when to stop driving…or give experience that you can apply.”

Statistics on teen driving are sobering.  Within the first year of learning to drive, 58 percent of new drivers are involved in some kind of car crash, according to the Teen Driving Academy.  That number jumps to 80 percent within the first three years of driving.

“We have an epidemic of teen car crashes in this country,” said Smith.  “Eighty to 90 percent of teen car crashes are caused by driver error.”
In 2005, a total of 5,288 American teenagers aged 13 to 19 died in motor vehicle crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  And Illinois is the 29th deadliest state for drivers aged 16 to 20, according to a recent study by two physician-led organizations.

“What we do is take the statistically significant areas where teens crash the most and then put those scenarios into our training,” explained Smith. “We try to hardwire the kids’ initial response from hand to foot to mind through repetitive drills so they can get out of dangerous situations alive and safe.”

Cunningham added, “This program is about driving skills, car control, balance, behind-the-wheel defensive and overall driver attitude.”

For the students, there’s the added incentive of driving “really cool cars,” said 17-year-old Brandon Piha, after taking a lesson in a BMW 3 Series.

BMW donated the 3 Series to the Autobahn Country Club, which is allowing the highly trained staff of the Teen Driving Academy to use the vehicles for teaching.  All of the instructors are experienced drivers and three of them are competitive racers. 

One of the cars used is specially outfitted with a control platform that uses hydraulic arms to lift the car off the ground, simulating the feeling of driving on ice with little traction. 

“They put us in real life situations where you actually get to test what would happen with different choices in the car,” said Piha.

The Teen Driving Academy could get a further boost when a bill that requires teens to be better prepared when they hit the road, proposed by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and passed last month by the Illinois General Assembly, is signed into law.  

The new law includes a change in driving permit length to nine months from three months, an extension in the number of practice hours required with a certified driving instructor, earlier curfews, and stricter penalties for traffic violations. 

A spokesman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Senate Bill 172 is under review and that the governor intends to sign it.

But for parents who want an immediate solution to the problem of their teens' safety on the road, the Teen Driving Academy is an option that's available now. 

Cunningham and Smith ultimately hope to find corporate sponsors to help bring down the cost of the class and make it accessible to more families, possibly even disadvantaged urban teens.

Smith plans to grow the Teen Driving Academy by tracking the driving records of his students and publishing the results, which he hopes leads to endorsements by insurance companies.

“We’re going to keep track of [our student’s] violations two, three, five years down the road and compile data in a statistically significant way where auto insurance companies sit up and take notice and start offering discounts to parents and teens who go through this type of training,” he said.

The Teen Driving Academy is offering its intensive one-day program monthly. The next session is July 24.  For more information, visit