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Editor's Notebook

Changing Aptitudes: Kumho, Other Tire and Auto Companies Work to Improve Teen Driving Skills

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The fact I need a mirror to see my rearview is ample proof that my teenage years are well in the rearview mirror. But, boy, do I wish I were one right now.

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Cell phones, PCs and the Internet, cable TV, digital music, four-cylinder rockets…we didn’t have any of these things. Our high tech was the driver’s ed simulator, a double-wide with an early form video game. Gran Turismo is so much better.

Just like slide rules, simulators and school-based driver’s ed programs are long gone. My kids both went to private classes. But both were lucky enough to also attend advanced driving skill programs designed for teens.

I have been equally lucky. Parents of teens know about the many horrific accidents involving teenage drivers. And the late nights waiting for a son or daughter to get home. And the praying that the next phone call isn’t the police or a hospital.

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One teen driver dies every hour of every day in the U.S. That’s 8,760 too many. Teens cause some 90,000 accidents each year; fortunately most don’t involve major injuries. Spring is the worst time, what with nice weather and impending graduations…and graduation parties.

But teens don’t ‘cause’ all of the teenage driver accidents. Lack of experience. Sudden situations. Cell phones and text messaging. Friends in the passenger seats. Poor weather. Intentional speeding. Trying to be cool. Loss of control.

While the numbers are staggering, Ohio – and many other states – aren’t concerned enough to do more than print license cards. And many parents are in too big a hurry to shove Junior and Missy out of the nest, regardless of their abilities, maturity or level of common sense.

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Over the last decade, tiremakers like Kumho and Bridgestone/Firestone and automakers like Honda have created or helped nurture teen driving clinics, sometimes in concert with racetracks and race driving schools. Some are free, most are not, and for those that charge, the cost can be quite expensive for most families. But they are quite effective.

I tagged along when my 17-year-old novice attended the Teen Defensive Driving School at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course earlier this year. I wasn’t there to spy so much as to see what the 15- to 18-year-olds were learning – and how.

The attendees faced multiple – and, believe me, quite difficult – control and maneuvering situations, including a skid car that has caused more than one lunch to leave early.

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There was no speeding or stunts or thrills (other than ear-drum-piercing teenage girl screams). It was well controlled, with little chance of anything more serious than a bruised ego.

Among the 20-student group were a few recent temp recipients and a couple fresh off minor incidents. Most of the parents sought out such a program; one mom drove six hours to bring her son, nephew and niece. Another mom, who had taken the performance driving class at Mid-Ohio, signed her daughter up.

Mid-Ohio School GM Dave Roush and instructors Tommy Byrne and Jim Bishop held their attention through two classroom sessions and lots of seat time. You could see the impact of the constant encouragement and constructive critiques teens received. One young lady started the day barely able to park a car let alone survive a sudden high-speed lane change. By the end of the six-hour day, she was among the best of the group; all she needed was the chance and the right instruction.

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If any of them felt a little cocky, there was the great equalizer – the skid car. Think straddle carrier meets Honda Civic. Developed by Byrne himself, the skid car can imitate every skid condition from black ice to moderate rain. With each teen getting a solid 10 minutes behind the wheel – a total of five hours in a spinning car for Byrne – I was surprised he wasn’t a new shade of green at the end of the day.

The chalk talks covered everything from how to sit in a car (yes, there is a right way) to holding the steering wheel at 3 and 9 o’clock (to avoid airbag injuries) to basic vehicle dynamics to the importance of tires. The hard part for most of the students was learning the counter intuitive things they weren’t used to doing – that most drivers aren’t accustom to.

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Do all the students pass? Not really, said Rousch, especially if they come in with an attitude.

That day’s group all passed, received their certificates and were later mailed grades on their exercises – with tips on how to improve. Pretty complete day, I’d say.

Evasive maneuvers. Sudden lane changes. Steering and braking on wet pavement. And the skid car. Through five exercises, lots of traffic cones died that day. Some were crushed, many dragged.

But better the cones than a kid.

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