Keeping Teens from Killing Themselves on the Road

Is your teenager a good driver? Or does he scare the daylights out of you by driving around at high speeds with a load of friends, their seats in full recline and the music blasting? If your teenagers scare you, you may want to consider enrolling them in Street Survival, a program put on by the Tire Rack. Street Survival is a one day advanced driver’s education course for teens only, run by local chapters of the BMW CCA. It emphasizes car control and emergency maneuvering instead of long classroom lecture time and road sign identification.

Designed to be taken after a student has already learned how to operate a car and knows all the usual traffic procedures, this course has one main objective: to teach teenagers, through hands-on practice, to be safer drivers. It emphasizes techniques to avoid rather than just deal with accidents.

My wife Sarah and I recently had the opportunity to attend a Street Survival event in the Detroit area. Of course, being a car enthusiast and someone who loves to drive, I was immediately excited about taking the class. On the other hand, even though teens may enjoy the freedom having a car provides, most don’t have a passion for cars quite like me. To gain insight into that strange perspective (I mean, how can you not love cars?), I conned my wife into attending the event with me. Like the teens at our event that were forced to go by their parents, she was quite reluctant to be there. In the days leading to the event, she made numerous attempts to create scheduling conflicts in the hopes that she could somehow escape going. She didn’t stand a chance.

The program is set up so that students use their own cars for the day in order to gain a familiarity with the dynamics of the vehicle they drive most often. With that in mind, my wife would be driving our trusty . Since we share the car, I had to find something else to drive. Luckily, I was able to drive our V-8 powered Four Seasons Infiniti M45. Power oversteer, here I come. Where’s that button to turn off the stability control?

After barely arriving on time for registration (my wife was so enthusiastic that she overslept), we were poised to begin the day. The event took place at a local college with a roomy parking lot where the exercises were designed so that speeds rarely rose above 50 mph. After a brief instructional period consisting of some basic car control principles, we were let loose on the parking lot for our first lesson.

The skid pads were first. Smooth control input was emphasized over speed, and we were challenged to keep the wheel in one position and steadily increase speed until the tires slipped. As expected, Sarah witnessed pronounced understeer from the Honda around the wet pad. Later, to practice catching a slide, the handbrake was applied by her instructors to produce a slide. She felt a bit timid about losing control of the car and drove very cautiously. Some instructors pushed her to drive faster, and others were more nurturing and encouraged her to proceed at her own pace. I, however, needed no encouragement to drive fast. No, smooth control inputs were to be my lesson for the day as I ham-fistedly whipped the M45 around the course. The Infiniti loves to get sideways under throttle and I learned that lifting completely off the throttle while oversteering is a bad idea. I spun out twice.

After the skid pads, we moved onto one of the most entertaining events of the day: emergency braking. All the cars queued up at a starting line. We were told to blast down the line, and at a predetermined point, apply full braking to generate the hardest stop possible. Again, Sarah, being the cautious driver she is, was a bit timid. She tended to anticipate braking before she got to the end of the acceleration zone and eased off the gas before she got there. Her stops were short, but she was persuaded to accelerate harder and brake later to get a feeling for exactly how hard the car was capable of stopping. The Infiniti, on the other hand, ripped down the line like a linebacker, probably achieving a solid 60 mph before I stood on the brakes. Dangling by my seatbelt under what felt like 5 Gs of deceleration, I was absolutely amazed how such a heavy car could stop so quickly.

After lunch, we returned to the lot for some more advanced maneuvers. Building upon what we had learned in the braking and cornering drills, we tackled some greater challenges on a dry oval, a wet figure eight, and an emergency lane-change zone. Sarah was more confident through these exercises, and ended up pushing the car harder and feeling more in control. She actually started having fun! But the lane-change exercise was a particularly difficult drill. Based on the braking drill from the morning session, students were to “accelerate smartly” down the line as before. At the end of the line, however, was a decision. An instructor holding a flag signaled (just before the end of the run, with the car’s speed ever increasing) a lane change to the left or the right. An alternate signal meant that the vehicle must come to an emergency stop, like before. This meant that as you barrel down the line, not only do you have to make one of three possible choices in a split second; you have to do so smoothly and quickly.

Sarah totally shined in this exercise. She was a natural at the last second swerve, consistently moving down the line, making the change, and coming to a quick stop with little drama time after time. I was starting to wonder where she got all this swerving practice (she often leaves late for work…) since she looked like a total pro. I, on the other hand, had quite a difficult time making that quick decision (which is true of my decision making in general). On one run, I swerved the wrong way. On another, I swerved too late and murdered about six cones. It took the workers a while to get them all out from under the car, while the rest of my group waited patiently for me to get out of the way. If I had to guess, I would say the problem was not with me, or my normally cat-like reflexes. It’s that the M45 is so quick off the line – spinning its rear tires until about 30 mph – that the flag holder didn’t give ample time for me to complete the maneuvers. By the time he gave the signal, I was bearing down on him with the rear of the car squatting under hard acceleration. Yeah, that’s my story. It’s the car’s fault! By the time the exercise ended, though, my nerves were shot from the pressure.

We headed back to the classroom to regroup before our final task: the combination course. There was a quick lecture about how the course was laid out, and our diplomas were distributed. Those pieces of paper, by the way, may entitle participants to a discount on car insurance with certain companies. When we got back out to the lot, we discovered the event was laid out similarly to an autocross track, with a specific path to be followed. It was designed to test the drivers in all the various areas we had learned about during the day. As we all made our way through the course, one by one, there wasn’t a teenager who didn’t have a smile on his face after coming across the finish line. I had an especially big smile driving over that line because I crossed it sideways, in a cloud of tire smoke. I also got in trouble for doing it, so that stopped.

All in all, the event was a huge learning experience. Hesitant at first, Sarah really warmed up throughout the day, and ended up enjoying herself immensely. She expressed astonishment at how capable our old Accord is, especially during the cornering and braking drills (acceleration, however, is somewhat glacial). She discovered how little of our car’s potential we actually use.

As for me, I knew I would have fun. But I was pleasantly surprised at how well the event was run, how many precautions were taken for safety, and how friendly and knowledgeable the instructors were. At $60, this program is a bargain for parents who would like to put their teens through a school that will teach them great driving habits – habits that should last a lifetime.