by Todd Cohen
photograph by Nick Pironio
When Daniel Wagner was 14, two teenage girls from his neighborhood in Port Huron, Mich., were killed in a car crash. The tragedy, and the lessons he learned from it, have shaped his life for more than four decades.
About 20 miles from their destination, the girl behind the wheel “dropped a right front tire off the pavement, jerked the car back on the road, overcorrected, and got T-boned by a semi,” he says. “Both girls were killed instantly. I remember going to the funeral home for the visitation. Both caskets were closed because they couldn’t repair those girls, and there was just a picture of each of them on top of the caskets.”
After the accident, Wagner’s father took him for a ride, “literally driving his car off the road and showing me how to bring it back on properly so that I never experienced something like that crash,” he says.
Wagner estimates he has driven more than 1 million miles over the past 40 years and says he has “never put a dent or scratch on a single vehicle.” But he believes most people don’t know how to drive, and he is trying to do something about it.
In 2010, Wagner founded Teen Driving Solutions School, a nonprofit that puts teens and their parents through a two-day course at the Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Va., near Danville, north of Durham. Wagner, who is its president, has invested $150,000 of his own money in the school, which has trained more than 200 teens from the Carolinas and Virginia. Only one of them has been in an accident since taking the course.
“You can drive if you understand your vehicle and its capabilities and limitations, and you’re focused on your driving and your own limitations,” says Wagner, a Willow Spring resident and Michigan native who will be 57 this month. “We want to forever remove driving as the No. 1 cause of death for teens,” Wagner says. “They’ve been set up to fail, and they’re continually failing. I want these kids to have the ability to come home alive.
What’s wrong with the way teens learn to drive?
Driver education does not teach them how to drive. It teaches them how to pass the license exam. It’s the parents’ responsibility to actually teach them how to drive, and most parents don’t know how to drive themselves. And we have these graduated driver licenses, which have kicked the can down the road. While these graduated licenses have reduced fatalities for 16- and 17-year-olds, statistics show that fatalities for 18- to 24-year-olds are on the rise. They’re disconnected from the vehicle they’re driving. Our entire driving philosophy in this country is that experience is the key to safe driving.
Why did you start Teen Driving Solutions School?
A few years ago, several nephews and nieces started to drive. Within just a few months of their having driver licenses, every one of those kids was involved in a crash.
What did you do?
I started researching. I found they’re not being taught anything compared to what I was taught. I started to write a book about how to drive, and about how today’s youth are set up to fail when it comes to driving.
What is the best way to drive?
There are two primary things that make a safe driver. One is the use of sound judgment for making good decisions. The second thing is understanding the vehicle you’re driving. You have a 3,500-pound machine that is subject to the laws of physics.
How does your school teach driving?
The school literally puts these two concepts together – mental skills with vehicle control skills – in pretty much real-world scenarios. Parents and kids are required to take the course together, and we put them in the cars at different times and in classes at different times. In the classroom, parents are learning communication skills – how to be more of a coach than a parent when they’re in the right-hand seat. On the track, parents are learning three things – how to correct the bad habits they’ve developed over the last 20 or 30 years; learning how to lead by example; and learning exactly what we’re teaching their child and why we teach it that way.
How bad is the problem of teenage drivers?
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens and cause more than 400,000 injuries to teens a year. In Wake County, from 2008 to 2011, we lost 35 teenagers.
What mistakes do parents typically make in turning over the car keys to their teens?
Probably the biggest one is they don’t set the rules, the guidelines, for these kids – where you can go, who can go with you, when are you to be home. The second biggest mistake is they’re allowing teens to drive when they’re not fully qualified for that responsibility. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm about five years ago did a survey on parents’ involvement with teen drivers. What they found was that parents who are fully and actively engaged in their teens’ driving ended up with teenagers who were 50 percent less likely to be in any type of crash, 50 percent less likely to drive without a seatbelt, and 71 percent less likely to drink and drive. Those to me are phenomenal statistics. They basically cut the risk in half just by being an involved parent.
What are some common driving mistakes that lead to teen crashes?
The biggest one is distractions that lead them to drive off the road. Looking at a cellphone, not paying attention. Texting is a huge problem. You’ve taken your mind off your driving, and you’ve taken your eyes off your driving. Those are two critical errors.
When they drive off the road, they panic and try to jerk the car back on. That’s one of the leading causes of fatal crashes. They don’t understand how this car is going to react. By panicking and bringing the car back on too quickly, they lose control, and then they overcorrect, which turns the car the other way.
Where were you educated?
I never went to college. I’m a self-taught, self-trained mechanic. I attended trade school during high school. Then I opened up a repair shop in a Shell gas station. I did that about two years. My actual career, which started in 1980, is selling upholstery fabrics to the bus industry. I work for a textile mill, Holdsworth Fabrics, in Mirfield, England. My territory is the eastern half of North America – Mexico, the United States and Canada.
You work full-time for your business and for the driving school?
It takes up most of my waking hours. I’m also interim president for Calvin’s Paws, a cat rescue charity in Raleigh.
What kind of car do you drive?
Cadillac CTSV. It’s a four-door sports car. 556 horsepower. Stick. I prefer stick. It’s more fun to drive. You have to pay more attention to what you’re doing because you’re in charge of the gear changes. It keeps you more engaged in your driving. I wish everyone would drive a stick.
What do you do for fun?
Driving on track. I’m an instructor for high-performance driving events. Clubs where members can go out on the racetrack. You learn how to drive performance cars, street cars like mine.
What are you reading?
I spend hours a week researching driving issues on the web.
What is your favorite driving movie?
Gone in 60 Seconds.
What inspires you?
Seeing people achieve what they’re capable of achieving in life.
What is your philosophy of life?
Do your best at everything you do.