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Consumer Reports teach teens how to be better drivers

Consumer Reports News: May 12, 2011 03:43 PM

Driver error accounts for more than three quarters of the 5,474 teenagers who die in car crashes every year. And driver distraction, along with inability to effectively scan the road ahead and driving too fast for conditions, account for half of those errors. Recognizing the dangers, Consumer Reports has joined the cause of helping teens learn to be better drivers.

We recently invited 37 teens and their parents to our Consumer Reports Auto Test Center in rural Connecticut for a day of driving skills training in conjunction with the Tire Rack Street Survival school. The school teaches kids how to better control the car in emergency situations, as well as how to stay out of them in the first place.

Learning the car’s performance capabilities in a safe environment was the most valuable part of the course, said many of the students. Katie Backman of Ridgefield, Conn., said the course “helped me feel a lot more like I know the limits of the car.”

Other students concurred. “I feel more in control. I know how fast I can go and how hard I can turn without losing control,” said Christine Piker, of Avon, Conn., after participating in the program.

In addition to classroom instruction, the students completed several on-track events designed to teach appropriate reactions to extreme situations.

  • The first exercise was designed to teach the kids how to use the brakes fully to stop the car and how to steer at the same time. Most of the students felt their ABS brakes activate for the first time in this event. And all stopped much more quickly after the first run through the course.
  • Next up were the slalom and the emergency lane change. The lane change was designed to teach kids to stay alert, with their eyes up. A flagger would wave them right or left at the last second where they would have to work to keep the car in control. Chris Krumenacker, a 17-year-old from Hamden, Conn. said he thought the avoidance maneuver was the most valuable event of the day.
  • The slalom taught the kids the transitional handling limits of their cars. They learned that the car’s weight transfers from side-to-side in a corner, as well as front-to-back, and how each weight shift affects handling. Most of the teens started timidly. As they gained more confidence and speed, in-car instructors had them try to read the last text message that had come in on their cell phones. At that point, none of the teens could successfully navigate the course.
  • At the end of the day, the kids learned skid control on a wet skidpad. Here the students could safely learn to quickly react to prevent a spin in a slick surface.

Some lessons were also taught by example. Consumer Reports Sr. Automotive Engineer Jake Fisher demonstrated the value of electronic stability control by taking kids for a ride through the avoidance maneuver we use in our routine testing with stability control turned on and off. The car veered out of control with ESC off, but stayed on course with it turned on.

Connecticut State Police Sgt. Troy Anderson brought the “seat belt convincer”-- a trailer with a seat on an inclined sled that hits a barrier at just under 5 mph. This gave the students a chance to experience a low-speed collision, and they saw that even a parking-lot bump can be traumatic. Another favorite was the demonstration of an air bag popping open at 300 mph.

After lunch, Jacy Good spoke to the assembled teens. Good was severely injured in an accident that killed her parents, caused by a driver talking on his cell phone. Since her recovery, she has toured the country speaking about the dangers of distracted driving, and all who heard her recount her experience were deeply moved.

Good’s presentation, combined with the cell phone slalom exercise, had many of the kids saying they would never think they could text or talk and drive again. “That was absolutely terrifying!” said Krystal Demirali, a 16-year-old from Watertown, Conn., after mowing down several cones in the slalom course while reading the last text message on her phone. “I’ve never felt good about it, but always thought, no big deal, I can see out my peripherals. But you can’t see anything! [Driving] takes focus and you have to watch out!”

That’s exactly what the course was designed to teach.

Look for more lessons from this class to be shared online in the days ahead.

For more on safe teen driving, see our special section.

Eric Evarts

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