Why a racecar expert is teaching teens driver’s ed

LAS VEGAS — Jeff Payne knows all too well the dangers of driving.

As a young racecar driver, Payne made a living competing around the world and operating his own driving school.

But over time, he grew increasingly concerned with the high number of teenage driving fatalities.

Car accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States — more than cancer and homicide combined.

“All these kids are dying on our roadways. Thousands of families are affected every single day by having a loved one injured or killed,” Payne said.

“Everyone is quick to point fingers at young drivers. But how do we expect them to do any different when they aren’t taught how to drive in the first place?”

Payne turned his frustration into action. He developed a curriculum, and in 2002, he founded the nonprofit Driver’s Edge with the goal of preparing young drivers to steer clear of danger on the road.

Since then, his program has provided free defensive driving classes to more than 110,000 teenagers and their parents across the country.

“It’s about preparing them for the real world so they don’t end up as a statistic,” Payne said.

CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Payne about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: What was the impetus to start Driver’s Edge?

Payne: Quite frankly, I started this program because I was pissed off with the lack of driver’s education in this country. Driver’s education is now extremely limited in schools. Most schools have cut it from their budget because they just don’t have the money to do it.

(Students) aren’t really ever taught how to drive. They’re just simply taught to pass a test, which is not going to prepare young drivers for all the hazards they face while driving in everyday life.

CNN: How does the program work?

Payne: We run a free half-day course for young drivers with a valid license or permit and their families. Students learn real life emergency avoidance and response techniques as well as overall driver safety.

We have a great group of instructors, some of which are well-known racecar drivers who take (participants) through a combination of behind-the-wheel and classroom experiences. We have law enforcement officials talk to the teens and parents about how to handle different situations they encounter on the road. We also take them through a vehicle walk around, where we talk about basic maintenance tips, tire safety, proper seating and steering positions, the dangers of being distracted and the importance of seat belts.

It’s all about just getting kids and parents better prepared for when they hit the road.

CNN: How does the curriculum effectively educate teens and their parents about safe driving?

Payne: The course has multiple components. We actually put young drivers through panic braking exercises, teaching them how to avoid those obstacles in front of them. We have another exercise where they really get to experience what happens when a vehicle loses traction and goes into a skid.

We make sure our classroom educational component is engaging. It’s important for members of law enforcement to interact with the teens and the parents in a way that doesn’t come across as “The Man,” but just share some of their experiences that they’ve had with teen drivers.

All these components aren’t traditionally part of driver’s education, but experiences that could potentially save lives out there on the roads.

CNN: How does the program change the mentality of young drivers?

Payne: It’s heartwarming seeing how these kids develop throughout the course of the day. The cocky drivers that think they know everything all of a sudden realize, “Wow, this is a lot more serious than I thought. I need to pay more attention out there.”

Even more rewarding in a sense is seeing the really timid, nervous young driver that was so freaked out that they didn’t want to be here. But now that they’ve spent time in the car and we’ve helped them build their confidence, they leave here on top of the world.

We started this program to actually save lives and make a difference, and I know we are.