Story By Don Kleist
Photos by John Keilly
How do you turn unhappy, grumpy teenagers who have been roused from bed early on a Saturday morning into happy and smiling teenagers? Enroll them in a Street Survival School. It’s like magic!
On Saturday, May 17, SEMPCA hosted a Street Survival School attended by 16 young drivers from the southeast Michigan. Held at the Faith Christian Assembly in Melvindale (a church located in what used to be a Kmart) they endured classroom presentations before driving their own cars in a series of exercises simulating conditions they might face in every day driving.
Car accidents are the major cause of deaths amongst teenagers. The BMW Foundation, the charitable arm of the BMW Car Club of America, developed the Street Survival School to help reduce this carnage. The Tire Rack, a company well known to most readers of this publication, has been the major corporate sponsor from the beginning. Other corporate sponsors are Michelin Tires, ZF, Enterprise Rent-A-Car. SCCA, Audi Club, and recently PCA. Our school was the second sponsored by SEMPCA Region.
As a member of the local BMW car club chapter, I have helped conduct many of these schools. I am always amazed at the positive change in the students’ driving abilities as a result of spending a single day in training. If you compared how the students drove in the first exercise in the morning to how they drove in the last exercise the afternoon you would not believe they were the same drivers.
As he did last year, Marc Molzon served as co-chairman for the school. He took care of the driving exercises and I covered the classroom presentations. Marc’s wife, Lisa handled on-site registration, coffee and doughnuts in the morning, lunch, and various liquid refreshments. The driving exercises were staffed by numerous volunteers from the Driver Education community. My sincere thanks to all who gave up their Saturday to help conduct this wonderful school.
Students begin arriving at about 8 a.m. They registered, were given a tire pressure gauge and asked to check the pressure in their tires. There was an air compressor available to correct tire pressures where needed. Students were also asked to check their cars to make sure there were no loose articles that could get in the way of the car controls.
At 9 a.m., the students went to the classroom for the first of three presentations. Meanwhile, other volunteers set up the morning’s driving exercises. We divided the students into three groups and each group drove a different exercise. These included:
- Emergency braking. Many students had never experienced an ABS system engaging. So, they were asked to accelerate in a straight line then apply the brakes as hard as possible to engage the ABS. Later, we had them brake and turn simultaneously. While relatively easy with ABS brakes, this is much more difficult without ABS brakes.
- Slalom course. The second group went to a slalom course. Here, the objective was to experience vehicle dynamics in a controlled environment. We told the students to drive at speeds at which they felt comfortable, but to increase their speed as they gained experience. We marked the course with orange traffic cones and asked them to weave through them. Even with a clearly marked course, there were many times when cars hit cones. This might seem an easy exercise. But it takes major concentration to drive this course successfully as the speed increases.
- Skid Pad. The third group drove a skid pad, a circular piece of pavement made slick with water and dish soap. The objective here is to have students experience the feeling of their car when it is near or beyond the limits of adhesion. We do this on a slick surface so that students can gain the experience, but at relatively slow and safe speeds. This is also one of the highest rated driving exercises. It’s a lot of fun to toss a car around at a place where running into something is not a concern.
Each group drove their individual exercise for about 40 minutes. Then they rotated to a different exercise. Thus, during the two hour morning driving period, each group drove about 40 minutes on each exercise. After lunch the students assembled for a class picture, then headed back to the classroom for more instruction. Meanwhile, volunteers set up the three courses for the afternoon driving exercises.
- Lead and follow. The first exercise was called “lead and follow.” A student in one car and an instructor in another would line up at the start of straight, parallel lanes. The instructor would lake off, followed by the student, who was told to follow at a safe distance. Sometime during the run, the instructor would apply the brakes and stop. The student would react to the instructor braking and stop before passing the instructor. If the student passed the instructor, that would have been a rear end collision if both cars had been in the same lane. This exercise let students get a feel for safe following distances.
- Lane Changing. Students accelerated in a straight line, while watching a flagger at the far end of the parking lot. The flagger would then move the flag left or right to signal the direction in which the student should turn. The students then had to drive into the indicated lane and stop. This is the most difficult exercises. Almost all students knocked over cones and, in some cases, turn the wrong direction! It’s difficult because students must observe the (flag) stimulus, determine what it means, determine how to react, and then react by steering their car. All this must be done in a split second. Even knowing from where the stimulus comes, it is hard to react properly. Imagine what could happen if a similar situation occurred on public roads where the drivers might be distracted by talking, phoning, eating or, horror of horrors, texting. This shows that, even with good concentration, split second decision making is difficult.
- Figure 8 This entails a course with two circles of different diameters. It presents students with constantly changing driving conditions. While the exercise is was a lot of fun, it shows that driving really takes intense concentration.
Again, each group of students drove each exercise for about 40 minutes apiece. Then it was back to the classroom for a short wrap-up and presentation of Certificates of Completion.
Meanwhile, volunteers set up a small autocross course. This was the “put it all together” exercise, and for many, the most fun. Watching students drive this course, it was hard to imagine that they were the same drivers who began the morning exercises. You could see they had gained both skill and confidence during the day. As auto enthusiasts and volunteers, it made us feel great about investing our Saturday this way. And yes, those early morning grouches turned into smiling, confident teens. Yeah!