Life Lessons

Since 2002, Drive2Survive, a nonprofit group, has taught teenage drivers how to avoid potentially fatal accidents. Courtney D'Ambrosio, 17, tries to keep her vehicle steady on slippery pavement during an exercise in maintaining control during a skid.
Since 2002, Drive2Survive, a nonprofit group, has taught teenage drivers how to avoid potentially fatal accidents. Courtney D'Ambrosio, 17, tries to keep her vehicle steady on slippery pavement during an exercise in maintaining control during a skid. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Using both hands, Darrius Dickerson clenched the sporty coupe's steering wheel as he accelerated into the tight turns at speeds higher than 40 mph. The novice driver couldn't speak, all his focus intent on keeping the Toyota Scion from crashing into traffic cones or spinning out on the soaked pavement.

Riding shotgun, driving instructor Brian Carroll suddenly yanked the parking brake and forced the car into a violent skid. The car careened into a kidney-jarring spin that bugged out the eyes of the 18-year-old driver.

"Take a deep breath," Carroll said in a calm tone. "Remember, you're going to turn into the skid. Stay off the gas, off the brake, until it's under control."

Simulating vehicular disasters such as skidding is why Dickerson's parents paid $200 for the course.

Dickerson and about a dozen other young drivers faced this and other road challenges in an empty Lot 7 of RFK Stadium on a recent Saturday, during a Drive2Survive clinic. The nonprofit program is run by a small group of law enforcement trainers from D.C., Maryland and Virginia police departments. It teaches young drivers how to change lanes, maneuver at highway speeds and avoid obstacles, as well as how brakes respond at speeds up to 65 mph.

About 800 young drivers and their parents have completed the course since its inception in 2002, according to D.C. police Officer Eric Espinosa, one of the instructors. Espinosa has trained fellow officers for the past nine years. Clinics are scheduled monthly at RFK Stadium, Patuxent River Webster air base or Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville.

"We all started this program so that young drivers don't panic, crash and kill themselves," Espinosa said. "It's the leading cause of death for ages 15 to 20."

Students receive six hours of driving and two hours of classroom instruction. There is a multimedia presentation of car crashes and lectures on how to avoid accidents or at least minimize the damage if a collision is imminent.

"It's very advanced stuff that we're teaching, and it works," Espinosa said. "We've been teaching it to law enforcement for 10 years."

The group has been sponsored by Toyota, which has donated cars since 2004, and is negotiating to receive support from local governments and national insurance companies, Espinosa said.

At the recent clinic, three Scions sped, braked and maneuvered around the expansive and empty parking lot, putting inexperienced drivers through their paces. Rather than smashed cars, half a dozen orange traffic cones lay crumpled in the lot.

Dickerson's parents, Darrell Dickerson and Marcella Stretch, watched the action patiently, hoping their 18-year-old son would gain valuable experience after driving for only about six months.


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