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Crash course teaches teens how to avoid accidents

Teen driver Shannon Carney, the daughter of writer Dan Carney, learns how to steer her way out of trouble at the BSR Accident Avoidance/Highway Safety course.

Summer is typically the time when beginning drivers log their hours of behind-the-wheel training in driver's education courses so they can earn their licenses. Soon they’ll trek to the DMV, or maybe the courthouse, to pick up their freshly minted driving permits.

But driving, like most activities, is a skill that improves both with experience and training, so while these new drivers think they are done with piloting a car under the watchful eyes of an instructor, they may just be ready to move on to graduate school.

That’s the thinking of instructors at the BSR Accident Avoidance/Highway Safety course conducted at Summit Point Motorsports Park about an hour from Washington, D.C. And that’s why I sent my own teenage daughter to try the class, which mixes classroom instruction with on-track action.

Other schools around the country conduct similar classes, and in fact our own Fairfax County (Virginia) police department offers teens a class with a similar curriculum. Other parents offered a variety of motivations for signing their kids up for the class, but mostly everyone wants to keep their young drivers safe.

Student Jenny Burstein said she accidentally ran over a road sign when she lost control in an intersection in the rain.  “It is a good experience,” she concluded. “Now I know how to countersteer. It definitely helps. At least, I hope so.”

A mom said she believes it does. She enrolled her daughter in the course after the girl’s older brother took the class and as a result of what he learned avoided hitting a pair of skateboarders who skated through an intersection — against the light — directly in front of him the day after the class. Without the class’ preparation for emergency braking, he’d have killed the skateboarders, the boy told his mom.

Many of the dads were car enthusiasts and former sports car racers who were already familiar with the track and had planned to bring their kids there to learn to drive since the day they were born. “I’ve been planning for her to do this since she was very young,” remarked Wayne Burstein. “It is all about taking care of your kids,” he continued. Of course, the racer dads figured they could teach their kids how to control the car themselves, but like Burstein, they recognized that kids listen to others better than to their parents in such situations.

“This is about learning the muscle memory you can’t get in driver’s ed,” he said.

The class covers topics like basic vehicle control, braking at the limit of traction, braking while turning, recovering control of a car that has left the road, swerving to avoid obstacles in the road (like skateboarders!), skid control and how to cope with loss of power steering and power brake assist.

How many drivers on the road today have received training and practice in having a car slide on a wet road so they can learn how to recover control in a safe environment? Or how to survive one of the most deadly forms of crashes: the off-road overcorrection?  That’s when a car drops the right-side wheels off the edge of the road and the driver panics and yanks the car to the left, causing it to shoot across the road into oncoming traffic.

The teens at the BSR Accident Avoidance class practiced how to react safety in this situation, so if it occurs on the road they’ll be ready. The trick? Do nothing.

Ease off the gas, hold the steering steady, ensure that the car is under control and then gradually drive back onto the road. It's as simple as that.

Critics of teen driver training complain that it will only encourage them to take more risks, but it is hard to see what risks “do nothing” off-road recovery training could pose.

Then there is the fearsome “backing up using the mirrors” test. Of course, the young drivers also have to back up looking over their shoulders, but the BSR instructors made the kids practice backing up using only mirrors for those occasions when they can’t see out the back for one reason or another. The orange cones fared poorly in this test, but it gave the kids good practice and reinforced the necessity for them to keep improving so they can park without crunching their parents’ car.

But parking isn’t usually a matter of life and death, while other aspects of driving can be. That is why the Accident Avoidance class tries to prepare students for that moment between the realization that a mistake has been made and the striking of a solid object, reports instructor Don Ruschman. “In those few seconds, an untrained driver will most often rely on their instincts,” he said.  “The problem is that in driving under stress, our instincts are almost always wrong.”

The best preparation for emergencies that the class provides students is teaching them to look for the escape route from an impending collision, he explained. “Drivers’ instincts are to look at the interesting thing in their path that represents a threat to them, when what they need to do is to look for the way around that object,” Ruschman said. “Looking for the escape path instead of what it is that's happening to make you need it, is incredibly difficult to do under the stress/pressure of the moment.” 

On the track’s skid pad, teens spend time learning how to find their way out of trouble by looking where they want the car to go and practicing ways to get it there. “Here, they learn about how to recognize, control and recover from skids, but even more importantly, the skid pad is most often where the ‘light bulb’ comes on about how where we look controls over 90 percent of where the car goes.”

My own daughter found that her instructor’s constant reminder to keep her “eyes up,” looking ahead for trouble and ways out of it, was the best lesson she took from the school. This fact reinforces the need to have people other than parents provide instruction to teens, because her mother and I had frequently pointed out her habitual failure to look far enough ahead to anticipate events. Naturally, hearing essentially the same thing from someone else is all it took for the message to sink in, which made it worth attending the class just for that.

Kids may resist the idea of extra school, but parents will rest easier after seeing their kids’ polishing their coping skills at a class like the BSR Accident Avoidance school.