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The Boston Globe - Saturday, November 21, 1998
by John R. White

A glimmer of hope for driver ed; a good car book

Update, driver ed: In addition to hearing from readers anxious over the failings of driver ed in Massachusetts, the columnist has heard from equally anxious legislators and, indirectly via the registrar of motor vehicles, the governor's office.

Buried ? but not overlooked ? in the recently enacted legislation that limits the driving of the newly licensed teenager, is a provision to establish a commission to pursue overhaul of the driver-ed system. It isn't exactly what this doctor would prescribe, since it fails to specify the driving education community best suited to build a new curriculum, but it's a beginning.

That community, in my view, is the advanced driver-ed schools that have grown out of racing experience. Now before you start screaming about ?teaching teenagers to race,? understand that (1) the advantage driver schools such as the Skip Barber enterprise in Lakeville, Conn., do not instruct he young in the business of street racing; they teach the philosophy and mechanics of safe responsible motoring.

And (2) like it or not, virtually all of the science of driving has come off the race track.

Contrary to what the unitiated often believe, racing is not about crashing. Drivers who crash don't win; they are losers. Racing is about winning, and the victory goes to those who have an edge ? superior car, superior talent, superior knowledge, or superior technique.

In the early days of auto racing, it was all about the car. As better and better, faster and faster cars were developed, technology largely determined the victor. But evolution of modern automotive technology and a code of rules for various classes has rendered all cars virtually equal. Enter science into the drivers' circle.

Studies of the physics and geometry of driving ? the forces in play, weight shift, steering angle, radius of turn, coefficient of friction, et al ? demonstrated that some techniques were better than others, that mere speed was not enough to win consistently.

All of that braking, steering, driving science has been filtered, refined, codified, and packaged in courses of instruction available to those with the werewithal to buy the instruction and the knowledge that it's there. A lot of parents now in the know as to what's out there are scraping up the money to send their fledgling drivers to survival school.

No, it's not about teaching wiseguys how to lay rubber in a straight line; it's about keeping teens out of the mortuary.

The public schools aren't doing the job, the myriad driving schools shepherding our children through the license exam aren't doing it ? nobody's teaching your kid how to live with a car.

It isn't because nobody up on Beacon Hill gives a hoot. They do and they are looking for a solution. But they need help in staying focused on driver ed. There are too many distractions in the legislative process, too many pressing needs vieing for attention ? and funding. Real driver ed will cost some money.

But one thing always gets a politician's attention: a vociferous voter. Write, telephone, e-mail, or buttonhole your legislators, your governor, your registrar and let them know that effective driver education is your priority.

Restricting highway access is a start, but restrictions do not impart knowledge or skill. Make noise.

A reader asks how the Y2K problem will affect our vehicles? What should we do now to avoid problems latter? Ask C.M.M.

Well, C.M.M., I'd recommend doing nothing. You really needn't worry. While the industry as a whole may experience a few glitches come the year 2000, your car won't likely notice. The microprocessors under are not date-sensitive; they don't care what day, what time, what year, or what century it is when you turn the key.

As for warranty eligibility, you have a bill of sale with a date, and the dealer will have a calendar. That's all anybody will need to establish your eligibility.

Auto books are a dime a dozen. This time of year they seem to swarm in the hopes of capitalizing on the holiday gift-giving spree. What better gift for an auto enthusiast than a book? It depends.

If it's another tome on how to get the best deal in hard bargaining by some ?reformed? ex-sleazeball who made a living giving salesmen a bad rep, count me out.

On the other hand, a genuine inside story will told is always welcome. Which is why I had a great time reading ?Glory Days? by Jim Wangers (Robert Bentley Publisher, $39.95 hardcover, $24.95 softbound, 348 pp.).

Wangers was the man who gave us the Pontiac GTO, the Judge, and marketed horsepower unashamedly. He craved the action of the auto industry, yearned to sell cars, create mad desire in the consumer heart. And Wangers was also a bit of a scalawag who was not above switching engines ? or whole cars, for that matter ? to win a race and get a leg up on the competition.

?Glory Days? gives an insider's view of the ugly side of things, too ? Wangers changed his name from Wangersheim to Wangers in an industry unwelcoming to Jews in high places, but it wasn't enough to spare him slings and arrows from the bigot brigade.

His was the world of nascent drag racing, cruising, street racing ? not exactly politically correct anymore, not always welcome then, either.

He was a protégé of John DeLorean ? and learned the perils of the written memo vs. the whisper. He offers a sometimes loving, sometimes sour look at those so-called glory days when marketing was supreme and car guys ran the business. Wangers offers an insight into where Detroit went wrong with passionless interchangeable executives running the business. And, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, Wangers also gives us insight into what goes wrong when the marketing whizzes have it all their way.

He spent 45 years in the business and had a pretty good time, it would seem. You can relive it in a couple of hours and have a pretty good read.