Last year, as my son approached his 16th birthday, I wondered whether my wife and I had done everything possible to prepare him to be a good driver. My wife, a very safe driver, did an excellent job teaching our son about the rules of the road, to be patient and always exercise good judgment. My father and I, both avid car enthusiasts, did our share of driving with him in empty parking lots and on the roads for a year while he had his learner’s permit. Still, I felt something was missing.
I researched online to see if anyone offered a driving school that was more comprehensive than the typical driving school, which primarily prepares drivers to learn the basics of car control and the rules of the road. That is when I came across Streetsurvival.org, a national program geared toward teenage drivers and designed to teach them what to do when encountering realistic emergency situations that could cause them to lose control of their car. The more I read about the program, the more I realized how important it is for all of us to know how to recover from unusual driving situations. According to Streetsurvival.org, the vast majority of deaths for teenage drivers are caused by automobile accidents. I learned that despite advances in automobile and road safety technology since the 1950’s, the proportional rates of death by age group had not changed. Hence, too many teenagers are still dying on our roads to this day. According to Streetsurvival.org, the reason is driving behavior.
I enrolled my son in the $75.00 all-day course held at a police driver training facility in Geneva, Florida. The event was hosted by the local Sport Car Club of America’s volunteer members and my son was paired up an SCCA race car driver, who would ride with him, in his car, through several different courses and maneuvers.
The day began early in the morning with coffee and a classroom session consisting of a PowerPoint presentation and video moderated by a very enthusiastic SCCA volunteer. The program was designed for the parents and teenagers and Street Survival provided a set of written materials for the parents and another one for the teens. After the introductory classroom session, the kids went outside, met up with their driving instructors, got in their cars and proceeded to their driving course. The facility in Geneva comprises a large wide open area paved with asphalt in most areas, but certain areas consist of a smooth concrete road surface.
The first exercise involved heavy breaking. The volunteers set up a straight lane with orange cones on each side. The kids were asked to accelerate quickly to bring their car up to speed and then step on the brake pedal hard. The goal was to engage the car’s ABS system (automatic braking system) so the kids knew what it felt like. When the automatic braking system is engaged, the brake pedal pushes back against your foot and the common reaction to this unusual feeling is to take your foot off the brake, a big no-no! By staying on the brakes, the kids learned that the ABS system will do its job and keep the tires from locking up during heaving braking. At first, the kids were timid with acceleration and braking. After a few tries however, they became more confident and were not afraid to really stand on the brakes and appreciate what their cars were capable of.
The next exercise was done on a slalom course. This time, a single line of orange cones was laid out in a straight line and the kids had to zigzag between them, being careful not to hit them. The kids learned that as they moved faster through the course, they had to turn harder and adjust their steering to better anticipate the upcoming turn and avoid “eating” the cones. Initially, many cones ended up underneath cars and in the wheel wells. An SCCA volunteer was on hand busily removing cones from hard to reach areas. By the end of the exercise, the kids got into a rhythm and successfully navigated the challenging course.
Next, they moved on to an exercise where a lane of cones was set up, at the end of which the kids encountered a wall of cones and needed to turn left or right to avoid hitting it. In this exercise, the instructor would wait until the last second to tell the kids which way to turn. At the last second, the instructor would yell, “left!” or “right!” and the driver had to react quickly and safely to avoid hitting the wall of cones. I think my son enjoyed this exercise the most because it required him be focused and attentive in order to quickly and safely react at the last second and, importantly, avoid embarrassing himself in front of his peers. This exercise most closely simulated a situation where a car suddenly came on to one’s lane of travel, making it necessary to avoid a collision.
The next activity consisted on turns around a single cone on a dry cement skid pad, followed by the same exercise on a wet skid pad. In this exercise, the kids learned the importance of throttle control when making a tight turn at speed, they learned to appreciate the importance of traction control, now a standard feature in most vehicles. To highlight the importance of traction control, my son’s instructor disengaged it to show how the tires would spin when too much throttle was used in a turn. This became very apparent during the wet skid pad session, resulting in several spin-outs. The parents, many of whom set up lawn chairs around the course, seemed to enjoy the wet skid pad exercise the most, as several cars went out of control there.
Lunch was catered by the local SCCA Chapter. The students got to socialize with the instructors and volunteers, and talk about what they accomplished up to that point. After lunch, the students participated in another classroom session. This session was centered on distracted driving and featured a very dramatic and impactful video called “Your Last Text.” This video featured stories of teenage drivers who were texting before becoming involved in tragic accidents. Recent studies showed that a distracted driver is 4 times more likely to be involved in an accident than a drunk driver. I couldn’t think of a more important topic for teenagers these days when the use of cell phones while driving is so common.
After lunch, everyone went back to the driving course where a large Peterbilt semi tractor trailer was parked with several cars surrounding it. Each student was asked to climb in the cab of the Peterbilt and get a glimpse of what the truck driver’s perspective is on the road. Because the front of the Peterbilt truck is so long, it was not apparent that a small Miata was parked in front . As well, cars parked along each side of the semi tractor trailer were not visible because of the large blind spots. The car immediately behind the tractor trailer was invisible. The lesson here is to give semi trucks wide berth and not to assume the truck driver knows of every driver around the truck. Aside from that, the kids really enjoyed sitting in the truck cab.
The last exercise comprised a small auto cross style course that combined many of the elements the students encountered in their morning exercise. The course was a large semicircle turn that incorporated slalom, heavy braking and obstacle avoidance. After successfully completing the course several times, the instructor invited me to go for a ride with my son in the front passenger seat. I was apprehensive about the speed, agility and skill which my son navigated the course and found myself white knuckling the door handle and stepping on an imaginary brake as we went around the turns.
The program concluded with the presentation of certificates to each of the students and a group photo. As we walked in the parking lot and approached my son’s car for the return trip home, he asked if I would drive. Apparently, the intense driving throughout the day had taken its toll and he needed a break. As many of you know, most teenagers are eager to drive at every opportunity, so the fact my son asked me to take the wheel for the ride home was a sign he was exercising good judgment. I could not have been more pleased with the experience. The program was well run and the SCCA volunteers should be commended for their dedication to the Streetsurvival program. This icing on the cake was a 12% discount on my insurance premium, which I received after I sent the course graduation certificate, with my son’s current school grades, to my automobile insurance carrier. The course is available nationwide and on streetsurvival.org you will find a calendar of upcoming schools. You can register your teen’s name and you will be notified by email when there is a school being given in your area. Your teen can take the course more than once. I think it is a good idea to do a refresher course once a year to remind them of the important principles they learned. Don’t pass up the opportunity to give your teen this experience. You’ll be glad you did!