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Buckle up and see how driver’s ed instructors keep young motorists safe behind the wheel

In World
April 04, 2024

Inside Look is a Star series that takes our readers behind the scenes of some of the most well-known and not-so-well-known places and events in Kansas City.

A few months ago an article in the Star addressed the “zipper merge” and how it could improve traffic flow.

After it was published, a reader who’d lived on the West Coast wrote to voice her approval of the maneuver, and take a few jabs at the Kansas City drivers who seldom use it.

Basically, she wondered how people here are being taught to drive and how much skill they need to display to get a license.

That’s a lot to unpack. But it got us wondering…

At one time, a “student driver” sign usually meant someone taking driver’s education classes through a school program. But over the years, those have largely gone by the wayside as districts trimmed budgets and chose to prioritize other studies.

Commercial driving schools (which were always an option) have picked up the slack. These range from large “chain” operations to mom and pop type businesses with just a single car.

Dan Backhaus, owner of Liberty Driving School, taught drivers ed in schools both here and in Arizona before starting his company in 2003. Randy Mason/rmason@kcstar.com

Dan Backhaus, owner of Liberty Driving School, taught drivers ed in schools both here and in Arizona before starting his company in 2003. Randy Mason/[email protected]

One thing they have in common is that virtually all use vehicles equipped with an auxiliary brake pedal on the passenger side.

As Dan Backhaus, owner of Liberty Driving School says, “You always have to be ready to use it. You don’t want to miss the moment.”

Backhaus taught drivers ed in schools both here and in Arizona before starting his company in 2003.

Because Missouri doesn’t require formal training, his role usually involves assisting parents by providing some or all of the forty hours (ten at night) of supervised driving that is required by the state.

At 16, applicants can take the Missouri Highway Patrol driver’s test, and if they pass, receive a restricted license. If no issues arise, that becomes an unrestricted license when they turn 18.

One thing driving instructors have in common are vehicles equipped with an auxiliary brake pedal on the passenger side. Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

One thing driving instructors have in common are vehicles equipped with an auxiliary brake pedal on the passenger side. Monty Davis/[email protected]

Across the state line, things are done somewhat differently.

Kansas kids 14 and over are eligible for a learner’s permit. By completing 8 hours of classes and 6 hours of driving instruction at places like the Johnny Rowlands Driving School, they can bypass taking a test at the DMV and receive a restricted license (driving to school, church, work, etc.) at age 15. That can be upgraded to unrestricted at 17.

From his vantage point inside the News Chopper 9 helicopter, Rowlands has seen thousands of traffic miscues on the metro’s roadways. “Seventy-five to eighty percent of them” he believes involve people following too closely.

Johnny Rowlands, at front of classroom, has built a curriculum that focuses on keeping young drivers from putting themselves at any more risk than necessary. Simple strategies that are designed, he says, to lessen the likelihood that parents will ever have “to get that phone call.” Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

Johnny Rowlands, at front of classroom, has built a curriculum that focuses on keeping young drivers from putting themselves at any more risk than necessary. Simple strategies that are designed, he says, to lessen the likelihood that parents will ever have “to get that phone call.” Monty Davis/[email protected]

With that in mind, he’s built a curriculum that focuses on keeping young drivers from putting themselves at any more risk than necessary. Simple strategies that are designed, he says, to lessen the likelihood that parents will ever have “to get that phone call.”

It seems to be working. In addition to company headquarters in Stanley, the Johnny Rowlands Driving School now has locations as far away as Topeka (and one in Lee’s Summit.) with a fleet of more than 20 Toyota Camrys at its disposal.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been any hiccups.

Building a cadre of experienced educators who can mesh with the “culture” he strives to create has required some tinkering.

For example, the school’s lead instructor, Roger Carson brings a background in radio. For decades, he was a staple on Kansas City airwaves.

Roger Carson, lead driving instructor for Johnny Rowlands Driving School, has conducted over 5,000 driving lessons in his retirement job from local radio. He said it’s “gratifying” helping kids who come in apprehensive or pessimistic succeed in the end. Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

Roger Carson, lead driving instructor for Johnny Rowlands Driving School, has conducted over 5,000 driving lessons in his retirement job from local radio. He said it’s “gratifying” helping kids who come in apprehensive or pessimistic succeed in the end. Monty Davis/[email protected]

That might seem surprising, but Rowlands explains it this way—“I’ve known Roger for 40 years. He has pretty much perfected the art of communicating with students, parents and instructors.”

Some 5,000 driving lessons later, Carson says the retirement job has been unexpectedly “gratifying.” Especially helping kids who came in apprehensive or pessimistic to succeed in the end.

“When I pass a student, I have to feel confident that they’re ready for the real world. And I’d say most of the time they are.”

Having trouble playing the video? Watch it here.

At one time, a “student driver” sign usually meant someone taking driver’s education classes through a school program. But over the years, those have largely gone by the wayside as districts trimmed budgets and chose to prioritize other studies. Commercial driving schools have picked up the slack. Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

At one time, a “student driver” sign usually meant someone taking driver’s education classes through a school program. But over the years, those have largely gone by the wayside as districts trimmed budgets and chose to prioritize other studies. Commercial driving schools have picked up the slack. Monty Davis/[email protected]

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