Being a concerned parent, as well as a lifelong automotive enthusiast, I was more than interested in playing an active role in my children’s driver training. My daughter Emily, eighteen, had already been through the obligatory instructional course while at school—from a national firm affiliated with Sears, of all things. The “Sears approach” consisted of some classroom sessions going over routine rules of the road, along with some fifteen hours as a passenger in the back seat of a training vehicle, and a similar stint behind the wheel with a rather grumpy Walter Mathau-type instructor.
Because a certificate from such an outfit is more or less obligatory to take the state driving test in a timely fashion, I was not all that surprised that it did not cover any sort of accident avoidance or vehicle dynamics training. In fact, it would seem that more time is spent on proper parallel-parking technique than on advanced situational awareness coaching—of any sort.
Having heard a good deal about the CCA Foundation’s Tire Rack Street Survival course, I looked carefully for an opportunity for Emily’s schedule to coincide with a school in the Northeast—and just such a date presented itself this spring.
To be fair, Emily is a conscientious, if cautious, driver who has taken her time coming to grips with the responsibility of it all. We have also made it common practice to ask her to drive us on routine errands whenever possible—as well as getting her comfortable with more than one of the family cars. We had noticed Emily being cautious, even timid in traffic—and easily rattled when presented with multi-tasking situations. I knew we had plenty of work ahead of us.
When the date finally arrived, Emily headed into the day with an open mind. As soon as initial registration details were attended to, the twenty or so students headed into a large car trailer for a simple 25-minute classroom overview of the theory of driving. The instructor explained terms that they would be using, like weight transfer, vehicle dynamics, the apex of a corner (and how to spot one in the wild), and so on. A few simple diagrams were also presented. Most important, great effort was taken to explain these terms in the simplest possible language so that the concepts were easy to grasp—and then apply to the exercises that would soon follow.
The group was then divided into three teams and we headed out to various corners of a large open parking lot. There were a wide range of student vehicles present: front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive. Our first exercise was the wet skid pad; with instructors moving from car to car, the kids went several laps around the pad in one direction, trying to provoke a loss of adhesion. When this proved difficult, instructors would take the wheel and get things started. More than a few spins resulted. And as parents milled about making small talk, the students continued. Then they took laps in the other direction. And sure enough, tire squeal began to diminish and mid-stream corrections—at first clumsy and incomplete, but slowly more definitive and subtle—became evident. This was harder than it looked—but it was also fun!
The next portion of the skid-pad exercise was the Figure 8. Two skid pads—one taken to the left, emerging into one taken to the right in one graceful and sweeping motion—composed the exercise. There were many attempts before much grace showed up, but the point was made. Then a few of the instructors demonstrated what was possible—as well as explaining why it was important to be able to feel what the car was trying to tell you, and then what to do about it when adhesion began to slip away.
As the kids marveled at how difficult it was to get these techniques right, we were shuttled off to the braking lanes. First, straight-line emergency braking and how to find the limits of adhesion were explained—and then demonstrated. Two accident-avoidance simulations were then used, where emergency braking was followed by having to turn, mid-maneuver, and maintain the positioning of the car—within some very tight coned lanes—as well as stop within a pre-designated “box.”
It was a very tough day for the cones out there at first, but there were also some very exciting revelations as the kids got noticeably better at controlling the attitude of their cars under full emergency lockdown. Again and again they tried it, getting encouragement and tips each time from the animated instructors. This was very obviously fun, and many of the kids were getting good at it!
After a break for pizza and some refreshments at lunch, we had a quick classroom review of vehicle dynamics, the contact patch, and weight transfer—why a car does what it does—and off to the lane-changing exercises we went. By now, there was some obvious excitement in the air, and the awkward silences of the morning were long gone. This exercise begins to tie in the lessons of the previous two, by asking students to brake in full emergency mode, while watching the instructor at the end of the lane, whose job is to signal which of three lanes you must try to enter, simulating an accident avoidance situation. Some would call it multi-tasking under pressure!
Standing at the back of the lanes, and running to replace killed cones, it became very clear to me that the kids were really getting with it now; that light bulb was well and truly on. I also had a chance to compare notes with Emily while waiting for the final exercise of the day, a giant autocross course combining all of the elements that the kids had studied over the course of the day—and a good opportunity to have some fun as well. She was enjoying this, and had become noticeably more confident in her approach to the exercises, positively pitching the car into the turns as a result of her instructor admonishing her that BMWs were “not built of balsa wood”—she did not have to worry about breaking it. In fact, these cars are tools that can do incredible things when necessary; it’s important to understand how and when to call on those capabilities.
After some final words of congratulations and extended applause for the instructors who had not only donated their entire Saturday to this effort, but had clearly brought a good deal of enthusiasm and skill to the proceedings, Emily received a lovely printed Street Survival diploma for the Tire Rack, as well as a year’s subscription to AutoWeek, plus an associate membership to the CCA! Parents were also treated to a short pitch by our local Liberty Mutual Insurance representative, who was so impressed with what he saw; he offered all parents a break on their family premiums as a result of this day of teen training and what it represented. In fact, as we waved goodbye, I saw more than a few parents huddled around his car asking questions and requesting a business card!
A suitable postscript occurred just three weeks later, when Emily was driving to work one morning. A neighbor, busy trying to quiet her kids in the back seat while on the cell phone, abruptly came right out of her driveway without stopping or even looking—arriving head-on in Emily’s lane! Instinctually, Emily went to full-brake lock, and swerved toward the curb, avoiding contact and driving around her oncoming neighbor—and it was over just that fast. What would have been a nasty and upsetting fender-bender just weeks ago became a quick memory—with no harm done to my child, to my car, or to my insurance rates!
All I can say is thank you, Street Survival. Keep up the great work. My son is a mere three years away—and we will be back!