By Stephanie Schaerr
Defensive driving instructor Kyle Stauffer tells a story about a man in Canada who tried to eat his own feces to mask the alcohol on his breath when he got pulled over. Another man jumped from the window of his moving car to retrieve a lost cigarette, and another was found naked at the scene of an accident after he crashed going 60 mph as he tried to change his clothes in the back of his truck.
?These aren?t isolated incidents,? Stauffer said to his class of 16 at UVSC Wednesday night. ?They happen all the time. That?s why we need to be defensive drivers.?
His students don?t only listen because he tells jokes but because he knows what he?s talking about. He?s been sent to the hospital nine times with injuries suffered while giving driver?s license tests in his 16 years at the Utah Driver?s License Division in Heber. He has taught defensive driving courses on the side for the past five years, so teaching drivers to be safer takes up both his day job and his Wednesday nights.
The course Stauffer teaches is one of many organized all over the state by the Utah Safety Council. The four-hour, $40 classes allow drivers to chop 50 points from their driving record, reduce the cost of safety belt violations and cut down their auto insurance rates, according to the council. The courses focus on driving hazards like bad weather and rush hour traffic, rules of the road and being courteous to other drivers and pedestrians.
Among the advice Stauffer gave during the class was that drivers should use at least a three-second following distance, avoid common distractions like talking on cell phones while driving, and to stay calm and avoid eye contact with aggressive drivers. He talked about the importance of being alert, awake and sober while driving, and the need for drivers to be respectful of all others on the road.
Of course, there are consequences for not following his advice. To drive this point home, Stauffer was sure to include horror stories of faces smashed into windshields and unrestrained backseat passengers thrown forward to decapitate the people in the front seat.
However, the class was not meant to entertain or to scare, but to educate. Stauffer also went over the rules of the road in Utah. Students were surprised to learn that, though unsafe, it is technically legal in Utah to drive barefoot, wear headphones while driving, ride in pickup truck beds and change lanes in the middle of an intersection.
Stauffer said the course is like a wake-up call for drivers to upgrade their skills every few years. Right now, drivers who do not get more than four tickets in five years or have their license suspended are never required to re-take driving tests.
?That means you?ve got people 80 and 90 years old, who have only taken one driving test in their lives, driving in the lane next to you,? he said.
Defensive driving courses are not the only force combating aggressive driving. The Utah Highway Patrol uses federal grant money to pay for overtime shifts for troopers to catch drivers who tailgate, speed and fail to use turn signals, said Jeff Nigbur, a public information officer for the Utah Department of Public Safety who also works as a state trooper. He said following too close is the number one citation for accidents in the state.
?It?s a real problem out there,? he said. ?We do need to slow down and take our time.?
For students, the four-hour course was a welcome opportunity to improve their driving records in one night.
?I feel blessed,? said Melissa Jackson, 27, a massage therapist from Draper. ?It makes me want to be a better driver. When I had to pay $117 for a speeding ticket, I was like ?That?s it, no more.? I haven?t sped since.?
According to Stauffer, driving is the most hazardous thing people can do. It is the leading cause of death for people ages 0 to 33, and someone is killed in a crash every 13 minutes. Fatalities can occur at speeds as low as 12 mph, and 86 percent of fatal crashes happen at less than 40 mph.
?We?re just trying to change one, 10, 16 people at a time,? Stauffer said.