Michigan State Troopers Teach New Drivers Car Control

Observing the MSP Teenage Defensive Driving Program

LANSING, Michigan—Teenage defensive driving instruction has been a car magazine pet topic for decades, so you’d think we have nothing new to say about the subject, especially with lane departure control, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot information systems and emergency automatic braking ready to practically take over for us. But all these autonomy building blocks are making us lazier drivers, in my opinion. Do instructors even train young drivers to diligently check their blind spots anymore?

My nephew Jeff Dziadulewicz turned 16 last March and earned his Wisconsin driver’s license shortly after. His birthday helps make the case for discussing once again the need for training that goes beyond basic driving-school instruction. Jeff’s a budding car guy, and he was very happy to spend a day with the Michigan State Police for its Teenage Defensive Driving Program.

The Michigan State Police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are the only two law enforcement organizations that annually test every police car, truck, and motorcycle sold to departments in the U.S. and Canada. Michigan’s expert troopers also train law enforcement officers from around the world the art of high-speed and defensive driving.

These troopers are good. They could be competitive SCCA racers, as I wrote in a sidebar when I helped Rory Jurnecka on a story comparing the previous Dodge Pursuit with the Chevrolet 9C3 Detective Caprice and the Ford Police Interceptor for MOTOR TREND four years ago. The teen program’s instructor personnel has changed; expanded, in fact, so there’s room for 24 students per class, with no more than three students per driver.

“Train Like a Trooper” starts with one hour of classroom instruction, and the $150 course teaches defensive driving, skid control, “serpentine” (slalom), controlled braking, evasive maneuvering, and off-road recovery (dropping the two right wheels off a curb and recovering) on a closed course. Teenage boys and girls get to drive brand-new Dodge Charger Pursuits with as much as 370 horsepower from their Hemi V-8s on a watered-down skidpad for all but the skid control and off-road recovery exercises. That’s where a fleet of aging Ford Crown Victoria Interceptors comes in.

A couple of students canceled at the last minute, leaving 22. Jeff shared car number 4 with just one classmate, a Michigan State college student named Noah. Car number 4’s instructor was Trooper Adam Whited, who learned excellent car control as a driver for officers in the U.S. Army.

“I wish I could get this type of driver training when I was their age,” Adam told me while the eight troopers gave parents (and at least one uncle) “hot laps” on the circuit after class is over.

Yep, I agreed. My friends and I had to “teach” ourselves by finding empty snow-covered southeastern Wisconsin parking lots from behind the wheels of our parents’ 8-year-old, rear-wheel-drive prairie schooners—a 1967 Oldsmobile 88 in my case.

“You can tell which students have done that before they came here,” he said. “They know how to handle the skid pad.”

Yep, again. My nephew told me he kept spinning out of control on the wet skid pad. He’s only had his permanent license since last spring, and even in Wisconsin, all the snow had melted. At least he’s taken to driving a stick shift. I’ve taught him in my Miata, an easy manual to learn, though he needs regular access to three pedals to become proficient. His belated birthday gift from my wife and I included a couple of sessions at Kart2Kart, our local indoor track.

During an afternoon session, I watched a teenage girl handle the slalom in a Charger Pursuit with expertise. Then she took another pass and crushed a few cones.

“We let them try it again, this time while texting,” another trooper told me.

Jeff said he really enjoyed the class and learned a lot, though he was more emotive through the big smile on his face than he was verbally. He and Charger-classmate Noah called a high-speed backup-and-turn maneuver their favorite.

Their favorite doesn’t matter; what does is that they absorb this training in car control from the experts. With teens like my nephew sharing the road with ever-more unengaged drivers, courses like the Michigan State Police’s Teenage Defensive Driving Program have become more important than ever.

MSP holds the Teenage Defensive Driving Program on select weekdays and Saturdays during the late spring and summer, and when Jeff took his class in early July, there still were a few classroom spots available in late August. Go to michigan.gov/msp for more information. Next year’s schedule will be announced in early 2017.