Dan Backhaus knows the roads and highways in the Northland as well as anyone, and after he is finished instructing student drivers, he hopes they are able to navigate those roads in a safe manner.
“I don’t focus on Liberty,” Backhaus said. “I get on and off the highway and city roads. We work on parking and the skills you need to drive on a daily basis.”
Backhaus started Liberty Driving School (www.libertydrivingschool.org) in 2004, but his experience as a driver’s education instructor dates back to 1995 when he lived in Arizona.
“I had a choice,” Backhaus said. “I could go to one school and teach or go to another school and teach driver’s ed. I went the driver’s ed route.”
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Backhaus arrived in Kansas City in 1999 and became the first head baseball coach at Park University. In his three seasons at Park from 2000-02, he had more than 20 victories each season. The best was in 2001 when the Pirates went 27-11.
Ultimately, Backhaus preferred teaching driver’s education and thus started his school two years after leaving Park.
“I drive all year long,” he said. “As long as it is not snowing, we are driving.”
His day job is teaching PE and health at Gracemor Elementary in the North Kansas City School District.
During the summer, Backhaus estimates he gives 10 to 20 lessons a week. Once school starts, that number falls to one or two a day because of school and less daylight.
Summertime is when teenagers are on the road the most, driving to summer jobs, athletic events and socializing with friends.
Operating on increasingly congested highways with limited driving experience can be dangerous. Backhaus said driver’s education for teenagers is important.
“Unfortunately, when kids make mistakes when they are driving it can lead to an accident,” he said. “It is the No. 1 killer for teenagers, and the repercussions of making bad choices can be fatal.”
The facts back him up. A 2014 study by the General Motors Foundation found that in 2012, car accidents were the No. 1 killer of American teenagers. In 2012, 2,439 teenagers died in auto accidents on U.S. highways; 56 percent of the teenagers who died were driving and 44 percent were passengers.
In addition, the study did not cite texting or phone use as reasons for traffic accidents; it did say that about 40 percent of teenagers polled said they had been in cars driven by teens who were texting or talking on the phone while behind the wheel.
“That is big in our class,” Backhaus said. “I talk about things mom and dad might not talk about, like what if a deer jumps in front of you. How you deal with emergencies or bad weather driving and distractions, texting, drinking and driving. I emphasize that a lot. Stay off the phone.”
It all comes down to experience. Backhaus said a lot of times parents simply don’t have the time to teach their son or daughter the intricacies of driving.
“Lots of time parents don’t take the time to drive with their kids so they are lacking experience,” Backhaus said. “Just because they can past a driving test, which is residential driving, doesn’t mean they are ready for the road, which is unfortunate.
“A kid will not want to stop all the way, or they don’t know where their blind spots are, things that you and I take for granted. We know where to look and pay attention. Kids really struggle with that.”
Also, roads are changing. As communities grow, roundabouts are popping up in more areas. A roundabout is a circular intersection that uses yield signs instead of stoplights.
“We have roundabouts now and the diamond interchange,” Backhaus said. “Parents can get confused.”
For more information about Backhaus’ various driving instruction classes, go to his website.
Backhaus gives driving instruction from teenagers to senior citizens.
“So far I have had ages 15 to 94,” he said. “Most of the time, their sons or daughters, who are in their 70s, come in and ask, ‘Will you check on mom and make sure she is a good driver? They have their license.’ I give them an evaluation and an assessment.”
Backhaus enjoys the role he plays in making sure the roads are just a little safer, especially for teenagers.
“I am giving parents the opportunity to let me help their son or daughter become a safe driver,” he said. “I’m not mom or dad yelling at them. I’m the guy who says, ‘Hey you are doing great. You can get through this.’
“It is being a teacher and part of your chosen profession,” he said. “You try to help people.”
If you have a story you would like to see in Making a Difference, email David Boyce at Drive@ksctar.com