Bruce Parker sighs. "I've seen way more avoidable trauma than I care to remember. I'm tired of telling kids they've just killed their best friend." Parker is an Emergency Room doctor who is also an instructor for various car-club, track-day driving schools. The weekends when he isn't on call, he can be found at Willow Springs, Road Atlanta, Virginia International Raceway or Brainerd Raceway, Minnesota, wearing his helmet and coaxing an Audi, BMW or Volvo owner to wring all the performance they can from their car. Dr. Parker is convinced the same kind of high-performance driving skills he teaches on the track should be taught to teenagers to make them better, safer drivers.
Every year, nearly 6000 teenagers die in motor vehicle accidents. It's the leading cause of teen fatalities. According to information from the US Department of Transportation, fatal teen crashes are usually single vehicle accidents, occurring when the vehicle runs off the road. Excessive speed and use of alcohol are also typically involved, but inexperience is clearly a factor. Crashing a car is twice as likely for a 16-year-old as it is for an 18- or 19-year-old.
Driver education in most states consists of 30 to 40 hours of classroom and hands-on instruction. That's not a lot, especially when any chirping of tires or violent maneuvering is likely to result in failure of a traditional Driver's Ed class. So where are teenagers, especially those in the most dangerous 16-year-old phase, supposed to learn how a car will react at its braking and cornering limits?
It's Sunday morning in May at Dakota County Community College. Eighteen adolescents, split nearly equally between girls and boys, file into a classroom, each with a parent in tow. This is a teenager's idea of Hell-sitting in a classroom on a Sunday morning with their mom or dad. They've come to attend the Glacier Lakes Quattro Club of Minnesota's Teen Advanced Driving Clinic.
Thankfully, the parents are soon dismissed and instructor Susan Anderson leads a lecture on physics, weight transfer and threshold braking. The session lasts just under half an hour. "We try to keep it short. When we teach adults, they are in the classroom longer, but teenagers don't have quite the attention span," she says. In some ways, teaching teens is easier. "In understanding physics, they are sharper- it's fresher for them," explains Anderson.
After meeting with their instructors and a quick vehicle inspection, the teen drivers head out for driving exercises. This is the school's fifth season, typically with four clinics a year. They only had four students the first time, but the club has kept at it and now 14 to 20 students usually attend each clinic. A one-to-one student/teacher ratio ensures the quality of instruction, and also means much of the club's membership is involved in the program. Instructors must have on-track experience and go through a training program before they can teach.
The typical teen expression of ennui cracks a bit when the students try on helmets. This isn't the Driver's Ed they're used to, but the exercises are standard stuff: slalom (wet and dry), wet and dry braking, accident avoidance. The drivers seem timid at first, but as they begin to explore the limits of traction on wet and dry surfaces, the cones start flying. This is a chance to get even with their parents, as moms and dads stand next to the track and pick up and replace the hit cones. Some teens are more aggressive than others and, once again, experience is a good teacher. A 16-year-old girl who is a local karting champion quickly adapts to her father's Audi S6, comparing the behavior of a full-size car to her race kart.
Teen driving schools in North America are growing. In addition to events put on by organizations like the Audi and BMW clubs and regions of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), Ford has a traveling program. And The Tire Rack uses its South Bend test track for teen training through the Street Survival program with the BMW club. Quite a few race tracks have teen driver training programs, and high-end racing schools like Skip Barber also have courses for new drivers. Costs vary from free to well over $3,000 for a three-day school. Most club schools are in the $50 to $200 range. The Glacier Lakes clinic costs $99 for the day, but two local Audi dealers offer a $50 rebate on the school when a student presents a graduation certificate.
Do these programs really work, or do they create a whole new problem with teens who have had a taste of speed? There has been little worthwhile research on this subject, a situation Dr. Parker finds deplorable. "All the measurement we do is indirect, mostly anecdotal. We need to look at how we can directly measure effectiveness," he says. Some of these anecdotal findings suggest teens who have been through an advanced program show an 80-percent reduction in moving violations and a 90- to 95-percent reduction in crashes. These numbers are beginning to interest the insurance industry. Lower accident levels mean lower insurance rates, but they also mean lower payouts for claims and, at some point, an insurance company stands to make more money from better drivers.
After a few exercises, things begin to click for the teen drivers. For most, it's the first time they've experienced how anti-lock ABS brakes feel and how a car reacts to a violent steering input. "It teaches you so much about what a car is going to do- especially in the wet," says the karting champ. "You don't normally get to feel the car move around," says another teen.
Parents also seem pleased. "It gives him a chance to practice things he wouldn't ordinarily do, unless it was a real emergency," says one dad. "I think this is making her more thoughtful about her driving," says a mom. For the Audi club, there is also the hope that some will enjoy the experience enough to join in on track days and become driving enthusiasts.
By the end of the day, the teens all agree on at least two things: they've learned skills that will make them safer and better drivers, and playing with a car on a closed course is fun. Not a bad start for the next generation of car enthusiasts.