On a rainy night in LA, a mother got a phone call from her newly-licensed son. "I was on the freeway and hit a slick spot, and the car started to slide. I'm fine, Mom, I knew exactly what to do to recover. If I hadn't taken that class, I don't know what would have happened." "That class" is the Teen Academy at Danny McKeever's Fast Lane Racing School, and at $350, it's more than a bargain--it's a public service. Send your teen to this course. It may save their life.
Teen Academy: Giving teen drives the skills they really need
Driver education in the US is simply inadequate. Kids are taught the rules and regulations, but aside from the vague admonition to "turn into the skid," they learn almost nothing about handling a car in an emergency. It's no wonder that in 2003, 14% of drivers killed in crashes were between the ages of 15 and 20. 82% of teen accidents are due to driver error. To say that parents have good reason to be concerned is an understatement.
Danny McKeever, owner of Fast Lane Racing School, is doing something about it: Teen Academy, a one-day program that picks up where driver's ed leaves off. What sets Teen Academy apart from other teen programs is the staff: Experienced racing instructors who encourage (rather than intimidate) the kids as they teach them to safely push their cars past the limits of traction while maintaining perfect control. These are the skills they need to prevent a sudden emergency from turning into an accident. I had the opportunity to observe Teen Academy, and it was amazing to see these young people transformed from timid and unsure to confident and surprisingly talented drivers -- and comforting to know that if things go bad, they would be armed with the skills to save their own lives.
Starting with the basics
A Teen Academy student gets advice for his next run through the cones© Aaron Gold
Teen Academy starts with a very short introduction and classroom session. The dozen or so students at the class I observed ranged in age from 16 to 19. Some of the kids wanted to take the course; others were there because "my folks are making me do this." Most were licensed, though a license isn't required. (Fast Lane recommends at least a few weeks' driving experience.) A couple of the students had already had accidents or near-misses. Instructor Greg Peene briefly explained the plan for the day and the basics of car control -- what makes a car slide or skid, how to sense it and how to control it. Greg and his co-instructors talked briefly about awareness and proper driving position, then outlined the day's activities. The classroom session is brief; most of the instruction takes place on the track in the students' own cars. A key part of Teen Academy is that the students learn the limits of the car they will be driving, and how to control the car once those limits have been passed. The students' cars ranged from a new BMW to a 17-year old Buick; sedans, wagons, minivans, even an SUV and a pickup. Parents were allowed to watch, but only from the sidelines.
The slalom: Car control and confidence
The first activity was slalom course -- weaving back and fourth between a straight line of cones. The instructors had the students start off slowly, gradually picking up speed on each successive pass. The slalom teaches how the car reacts in hard corners, and demonstrates quite clearly that cars won't roll over just from cornering too fast. What struck me most was the attitude of the instructors. As the students drove faster and faster, Greg and his crew cheered them on. This is critical; as a car approaches its limits of traction, some unexpected things can happen, like howling tires or sudden skids. Kids look to parents to evaluate a situation -- remember when your kid was learning to walk? When a toddler falls, she looks at her parents; if Mom looks panicked and rushes to her aid, she cries. Same deal on the road. Having the back end of your car suddenly slide can be scary, until you look up to see your parents applauding and your instructor jumping up and down and cheering.
Panic swerves and stops: Precision driving
16-year-old Andrea learns the hard way that her car doesn't have ABS -- and recovers perfectly© Aaron Gold
The Fast Lane crew re-arranged the cones for the panic-swerve-and-stop lesson. Greg took the kids in one of Fast Lane's cars, four at a time, and demonstrated the maneuvers: Brake on, brake off, swerve around the obstacle, stop. Next, brake throughout the swerve. Again, the instructors started the drivers off slowly, but with faith in their new-found abilities, it wasn't long before the drivers were tearing hell-for-leather into the cones and executing perfect swerves, tires squealing and smoking. Drivers of cars with antilock brakes (ABS) learned how to maximize its effectiveness; those without learned to modulate the brakes for maximum stopping power. With their new-found knowledge of car control, most picked it up instinctively. 16-year-old Andrea thought her Corolla had antilock brakes. She discovered it didn't when the rear wheels locked and the back end of the car started to skid. Andrea deftly eased up on the brakes and altered her steering to get the car back in line. Greg cheered so loud that I thought his head was going to explode.