Buckle up and watch driver instructors keep young drivers safe behind the wheel

By | April 4, 2024

Look inside is a Star series that takes our readers behind the scenes of some of Kansas City’s most famous and lesser-known places and events.

A few months ago, an article in the Star talked about the “zip merger” and how it could improve traffic flow.

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

Actually, she wondered how people learn to drive here and how many skills they have to show to get a driver’s license.

That’s a lot to unpack. But it made us doubt…

In the past, a “learner driver” sign usually meant that someone was taking driver training through a school program. But over the years, these have largely been pushed aside as districts have trimmed budgets and opted to prioritize other studies.

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

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

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

They have one thing in common: almost all vehicles use 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 this moment.”

Backhaus taught drivers at schools both here and in Arizona before founding his company in 2003.

Because Missouri does not require formal training, his role usually involves assisting parents by driving under supervision for some or all of the forty hours (ten hours at night) as required by the state.

At age 16, applicants can take the Missouri Highway Patrol driving test and if they pass, they receive a restricted license. If no problems arise, it will become an unlimited license when they turn 18.

Driving instructors have one thing in common: vehicles equipped with an additional brake pedal on the passenger side.  Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.comDriving instructors have one thing in common: vehicles equipped with an additional brake pedal on the passenger side.  Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

Driving instructors have one thing in common: vehicles equipped with an additional brake pedal on the passenger side. Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

Across state lines, things are done slightly differently.

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

From his vantage point in the News Chopper 9 helicopter, Rowlands has seen thousands of traffic accidents on metro roads. According to him, “seventy-five to eighty percent” involve people who follow too closely.

Johnny Rowlands, who is in front of the classroom, has drawn up a curriculum aimed at preventing young drivers from exposing themselves to more risk than necessary.  Simple strategies designed, he says, to reduce the likelihood that parents will ever have to Johnny Rowlands, who is in front of the classroom, has drawn up a curriculum aimed at preventing young drivers from exposing themselves to more risk than necessary.  Simple strategies designed, he says, to reduce the likelihood that parents will ever have to

Johnny Rowlands, who is in front of the classroom, has drawn up a curriculum aimed at preventing young drivers from exposing themselves to more risk than necessary. Simple strategies designed, he says, to reduce the likelihood that parents will ever have to “get that phone call.” Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

With that in mind, he has developed a curriculum aimed at preventing young drivers from exposing themselves to more risk than necessary. Simple strategies designed, he says, to reduce the likelihood that parents will ever have to “get that phone call.”

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

Which does not mean that there have been no setbacks.

Building a cadre of experienced teachers who can fit in with the “culture” he is trying to create has taken some tinkering.

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

Roger Carson, head driving instructor at Johnny Rowlands Driving School, has given more than 5,000 driving lessons on local radio during his retirement job.  He said it is Roger Carson, head driving instructor at Johnny Rowlands Driving School, has given more than 5,000 driving lessons on local radio during his retirement job.  He said it is

Roger Carson, head driving instructor at Johnny Rowlands Driving School, has given more than 5,000 driving lessons on local radio during his retirement job. He said it is “satisfying” to see children who come in anxious or pessimistic ultimately succeed. Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

That may seem surprising, but Rowlands explains it this way: ‘I have known Roger for forty years. He has virtually perfected the art of communicating with students, parents and teachers.”

Some 5,000 driving lessons later, Carson says the retirement job has been unexpectedly “satisfying.” Especially helping children who were worried or pessimistic to ultimately succeed.

“When I pass a student, I have to be confident that he or she is ready for the real world. And I would say most of the time they are.”

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In the past, a “learner driver” sign usually meant that someone was taking driver training through a school program. But over the years, these have largely been pushed aside as districts have trimmed budgets and opted to prioritize other studies. Commercial driving schools have picked up the slack. Monty Davis/madavis@kcstar.com

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