My 15-year-old son received his learner's permit this summer, and I immediately went searching for a crash-prevention clinic. One that caught my eye featured a six-hour course that taught students how to "thread the needle," maneuver through a "roll-on, roll-off slalom" and execute "threshold braking" on an oil slick.
It was called "New Driver Car Control: Kamikaze to Competent." Only after signing up did I learn that parents were expected to witness this transformation while riding shotgun.
"Remember, parents, no talking to the drivers when they're in the hot zone," one of the professional driving coaches said at the start of the clinic.
The "hot zone" was an obstacle course with orange cones on a blacktop parking lot at the Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington. About two dozen teens chauffeured their parents to the course Saturday, and the driving coaches congratulated us for "showing your children how much you care."
Then again, if we really cared, would we ever let a child get behind the wheel of a car in Washington area traffic?
A recent study by Allstate Insurance Co. found that the District is the most dangerous place to drive in the country. The study found that, on average, a driver in Washington crashes every 5.2 years, while a driver in, say, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, only crashes once every 15 years.
AAA has noted that the Washington area is "gridlocked with the third-worst congestion in the nation" and that the situation is made worse by "the deterioration in driver attitudes, with a regional epidemic of aggressive, reckless driving."
Students at the driving course, which is run by New Driver Car Control Clinic, had attended a two-hour classroom discussion of vehicle dynamics and human behavior in emergency situations. They were told that teenagers represent only 7 percent of licensed drivers but are involved in 22 percent of highway deaths. The obstacle course would present them with a series of braking and steering challenges and a chance to feel the adrenaline in controlled emergency situations.
"Anyplace around here to get a stiff drink?" a mother asked before the exercises began.
The slalom roll wasn't so bad, just a bunch of rolling figure eights around a row of orange cones. "Threading the needle" was a steering exercise that duplicated a careful drive in a store parking lot, with simulated parking in tight spaces. This was most helpful but not nearly as exciting for the drivers as "stop in a box." That exercise taught the kids how to achieve major directional change quickly and under control while bringing the car to a rapid halt -- on an oil slick that the coaches had spilled.
"All accidents are caused by one thing," a coach said. "The inability to stop in time."
Students were told not to be afraid of anti-lock brakes, to slam them on and hold them down as if a 3-year-old child had suddenly run in front of the car. "You must get used to the feeling of an abrupt stop," the coach said, adding that some students become so emotionally shaken by inertia, the dipping of the hood and rising of the trunk, that they let up on the brake and start crying after realizing that they'd run over the imaginary 3-year-old.
Students were urged to stay focused on the road and were cautioned against using cell phones or eating or drinking while driving. Foods and beverages most commonly found at the scene of automobile accidents include coffee, hot soup, hamburgers, barbeque ribs, fried chicken and jelly donuts, according to the coaches.
The list caused some teenagers to roll their eyes at parents who pretended not to know why.
"Hopefully, you'll never need to use some of the things you've learned today because if you do, it means you've come upon a dangerous situation," a coach said. "And don't think that completing this course means that you know how to drive, either. You don't know squat about driving. It's going to take another 15 years before you really know what you're doing."
By now, most of the teenagers were preoccupied with the driving certificates they'd received, and you could almost see the coach's words going in one ear and out the other.