Teens get defensive at driver-training program

When 15 teens died in vehicular crashes in a 15-month span in rural Tazewell County, Illinois, it was a crisis call to action for the residents of the sparsely populated area of central Illinois. The community responded with a teen driving safety campaign spearheaded by high school students, with help from law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, parents, the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Ford Motor Co.

“In the five years after our teen initiative, we had no teen traffic fatalities,” Tazewell County Deputy Sheriff John Shallenberger said of the time after 2006. “It was a great partnership in the community, and of students educating themselves.”

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That education partnership between law enforcement, state government and corporate entities served as the basis for Ford’s Driving Skills for Life program earlier this month at DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Ill.

An estimated 300 teens and as many parents braved the rainy weekend to take a four-hour hands-on course to help reduce the No. 1 killer of teens in the U.S. An average of 3,000 teens ages 16 to 19 die every year in vehicle crashes.

“The need for advanced driver education is so important,” said Jim Graham, global manager of Ford Driving Skills for Life. “The biggest challenge facing teen drivers is a lack of experience. Throw in distracted and impaired driving and it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Teens are taught to avert disaster in four critical areas of the free travelling program, which stops in about 20 cities annually in the U.S.

The first section was spinning out in a rear-wheel-drive Ford Mustang. The rear axle had casters to lift the wheels so the contact patch with the tire was lessened, making it much easier to fishtail, or “drift but not drift,” in the words of my 15-year-old nephew with his learner’s permit.

Pro driver and driving instructor Juan Babun demonstrated how to accelerate into the turn and to turn out of the oversteer that happens in rear-wheel drive vehicles. My nephew was not the only teen to call the spinout exercise fun.

“It’s a heck of a thrill, yeah,” said participant Mike Sanguinetti. “It’s an experience of a lifetime, and your children will learn some skills to prevent accidents before they happen.”

Another two-part demonstration to prevent crashes included a quick lane change in a Ford Focus. A single lane expanded into three lanes marked by cones, and at the end of each lane was a green light. The driver was instructed to hit the throttle hard from a stop, then veer into the lane with the green light as the lights in the other lanes went red. The exercise simulated what to do if you are cut off or if there is a sudden obstruction in your lane.

The next exercise was similar in hard throttle from a stop, then slamming the brakes when the light went red. It was to demonstrate anti-lock brakes and stopping distance needed in certain situations. The braking power was the most insightful, my nephew said. “I didn’t know cars could stop like that,” he said.

That is the big idea of advanced driver training beyond driver’s ed: how the car and driver react in high-pressure, instantaneous situations that can’t be taught in a classroom.

“This takes a step beyond need-to-know basics into advanced decision making,” said Jessi Hopkins, occupancy protection co-ordinator with the Illinois Department of Transportation, who has been working on the Ford partnership since 2007. “[Safe driving] starts with you, it’s a choice you make every day.”

The last component of the program demonstrated the dangers of distracted driving. On a narrow course in a Ford Escape traveling eight to 13 kilometres per hour, drivers went through a narrow serpentine, a roundabout of cones, then a sign indicating a merge left followed by a 90-degree turn. On the second lap, drivers wore goggles that simulated the blurred vision of a person with a 0.2 per cent blood alcohol level, more than twice the legal limit in Illinois. It made my nephew’s eyes hurt. On the third lap, the instructor told the driver to maintain speed and take his cellphone out of his pocket, open his Snapchat app, add a filter and keep driving. The snapping came from the thrum of cones under the body of the car as the driver weaved all over the course, just narrowly missing the yield sign.

Graham’s recipe for disaster played out in real time, and served as a refrain echoed by everyone we spoke to at the event.

“The biggest challenge for young drivers is avoiding distraction, not just on the cellphone but with passengers,” Hopkins said.

Many parents assembled under the tent on the tarmac nodded knowingly about the pitfalls of distractions. It is parents who are the No. 1 source of training young drivers.

“Parents help by getting involved,” Graham said, emphasizing the whole it-takes-a-community approach to teaching a teen safe driving habits. “Ultimately, the parent is going to be the trainer, in parking lots, yes, but behind the wheel leading by example.”

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