PCA Southeast Michigan Region

From the Blog

P4-2018-07 – Street Survival School – Bettering the Odds

Story and Pictures by By Don Kleist

More American teenagers die in automobile accidents than from any other cause. And many, if not most accidents, can be prevented. According to the National Safety Council:

The chance of one crash in the first three years of driving is 89.2%. Even worse, the chance of two crashes in the first three years of driving is 52.5%.

Each day, nearly1000 teens are treated in an emergency room for injuries suffered in a motor vehicle crash.

Each week 113 teenage drivers in the U.S. are involved in fatal crashes.

About 2/3 of teens killed in car accidents were not wearing a seat belt.

If these statistics aren’t enough to make one wish for the return of horse and buggy transportation, I don’t know what is.

There are many reasons for these glum statistics. Primary among them are distracted drivers talking on cell phones or to other vehicle occupants, texting, fiddling with iPods, eating, etc., not wearing seat belts, lack of skill and experience, and poorly maintained vehicles, to name a few. Compounding the problems, many teenage drivers think their driving skills are much better than they actually are.

Since we are unlikely to return to horse and buggy days, mitigating the reasons causing the dangers is the best we can do: hence, Street Survival School.  Developed by the BMW Foundation, the charitable arm of the BMW Car Club of America and Tire Rack, a company well known to many of our members, these schools grew from similar schools conducted by individual BMW Club chapters. These schools aim to teach teens safe driving through both classroom instruction and driving exercises that simulate real world conditions.

SEMPCA hosted its sixth Street Survival School on Saturday, May 19, 2018, at the Faith Christian Assembly in Melvindale, MI. A small, but enthusiastic group of teens learned and experienced both the theory and practice of safe driving. Marc Molzon and I served as co-chairmen, Marc led the driving exercises and I gave the classroom presentations. Marc’s wife, Lisa, handled the administrative duties that helped the school run smoothly.

The teen students, and some of their parents, endured classroom presentations of about an hour each in the morning and afternoon. I discussed the responsibilities of the driver, the dangers drivers face, how to sense the environment, anticipate situations, and how to manage these situations as they arise. I focused on individual skills like braking and steering. I even told the students how to set their rear view mirrors so that there is no blind spot.

But enough about the classroom. The real learning environment was the parking lot in front of the church. The building originally housed a K-Mart, so you can imagine the huge rectangular parking lot we used. We divided the students into three groups and conducted three concurrent exercises, with the groups rotating between exercises..

The first group drove an emergency braking exercise. Some of the students had never experienced what happens when the anti-lock brake system, ABS, engages. We had them accelerate in a straight line, then apply the brakes as hard as possible. We wanted them to engage the ABS and feel the chattering that occurs when the ABS engages.

The second group drove 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 the cones. Even with a clearly marked course, there were many times when cars hit cones. This might seem an easy exercise. But it takes serious concentration to drive this course successfully as speed increases.

The third group drove a skid pad, a circular piece of pavement made slick with cracked corn. The objective here is to have students experience the feeling of their car when it is near or beyond its limits of traction. 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!

Then came a group picture and a break for lunch. The afternoon started with the second classroom presentation. Here, I focused on combining the individual skills learned in the morning.

We staged another braking exercise, but this time it was braking and turning at the same time. This is straight forward for cars equipped with ABS, a bit harder for cars without ABS.

The second afternoon exercise involved sudden lane changing. Students accelerated their cars in a straight line while watching for a flagman to indicate which lane to turn into, left or right. Then the students had to react by steering their car into the indicated lane and stopping. These are the most difficult of all the driving exercises. Almost all students knocked over cones and in some cases, even turned the wrong direction!

What makes this so difficult is that the students must observe a stimulus, determine what the stimulus means, determine how to react, then react by steering their cars. All of this must be done in a split second. It’s hard, but a good simulation of actual driving situations.

The third afternoon driving session involved a figure-8 course where cones marked two circles of different diameters, one slick with cracked corn and the other plain pavement. The intent was to present the students with constantly changing driving conditions. This exercise was a lot of fun and showed that driving really takes intense concentration.

While the students went back into the classroom for the final wrap-up, the instructors set up an small course. This final exam was the “put it all together” exercise, and for many, the most fun. But as I was wrapping up the classroom activities, Mother Nature decided she wanted to play. After a cloudy day with a couple of stray light sprinkles, she gave us a downpour. From the viewpoint of learning driving skills, this was the ideal condition in which to learn car control. But at the time it was difficult to think that way.

Watching the students drive the autocross course, it was hard to imagine that they were the same drivers who began the morning exercises. You could tell that these drivers had gained both skill and confidence.

I firmly believe that the students who drove home after the school became more aware drivers whose driving skills had improved dramatically. I am sure that these students will use their newly refined knowledge and skills as they drive and will help make driving safer for all of us. As a volunteer, this makes me feel great about volunteering my Saturday.