- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

As a responsible grandfather, I taught my twin granddaughters how to play poker when they were 5 years old.

As important as that was then, they are now 17 and have drivers’ licenses, and the intricacies of Texas hold ‘em are not of much help.

So this time, they received a different — and vastly more important — set of instructions at the “Driving Expectations” course sponsored by Toyota for teenagers and their parents.

As a newspaper reporter who covered traffic safety issues as far back as the mid-1960s, I have long been convinced that the so-called “driver education” received by most teens is dangerously inadequate.

The statistics bear out that conclusion. Vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for young people aged 16 to 20. Although teens make up 7 percent of licensed drivers, they suffer 14 percent of all vehicle-related fatalities.

So well known are the statistics, it’s a wonder that more has not been done to protect our teens from themselves. Some states have made half-hearted attempts by advancing the age for obtaining a driver’s license, or restricting driving by teens in other ways.

But the most important thing, I am convinced, is to teach the teens better driving skills — along the lines of what prospective race drivers or truck drivers learn in specialized driving schools. I don’t believe a 16-year-old learns much about how to handle a powerful and possibly lethal 2-ton piece of machinery by listening to lectures in a classroom, with minimal time behind the wheel.

With their parents’ permission, I started giving Alyssa and Rachel Navarrete, my granddaughters, driving lessons at age 13.

It was obviously not legal, and it was not much, consisting mainly of brief and slow maneuvers in big and deserted parking lots on weekends. But it was better than nothing.

When the girls got their learners’ permits before their 16th birthday, they already had some idea of what driving was all about. Unfortunately, being twins worked against them because they had less wheel time with their parents than if there had been only one of them.

Despite that, both Alyssa and Rachel did well. They are responsible and mature for their age, and that has carried over to their driving. Nevertheless, I resolved to try, at some point, to enroll them in an advanced driving school.

Then I learned about Toyota’s “Driving Expectations” course for teens and their parents. It’s a free four-hour course that Toyota is taking to five cities this year: Tampa, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo., and Orange County, Calif. In Washington, where Alyssa and Rachel took the course along with their father, Enrique, the location was the parking lot at FedEx Field, where the Washington Redskins play.

After an initial orientation session for the entire group, the teens were separated from their parents. The teens walked to three courses, marked by orange traffic cones, with tents that functioned as classrooms.

With professional drivers as instructors, the teens drove the first course, which taught them to anticipate, look ahead and react quickly. In essence, it was the same thing race drivers are taught: look where you want to go, and as far ahead as you can.

On a second course, the teens learned how to make panic stops with antilock brakes full on — on both dry and wet pavement — while steering away from suddenly appearing obstacles.

In between, there were classroom sessions in the tents — similar to the “chalk talks” race drivers get before going out on the track.

In one exercise, the teens learned the inherent difficulty in stopping a vehicle. Two teens holding wooden rulers were asked to use them to stop an inflated soccer-sized ball that was rolled at them. It represented the braking effort needed to stop a sedan. Then the instructor rolled a bowling ball — representing a big sport utility vehicle — with predictable results.

The teens also learned the importance of tires and how small is the tire contact patch with the road. One teen removed his size 12 sneakers and the instructor used them to almost fully cover a drawing of the contact patches of all four tires on a typical sedan. The teens also learned how the patches shrink in size during cornering on a typical freeway entrance ramp.

But a real eye-opener for both Alyssa and Rachel — and the other teens as well — was the third and final “distraction course,” on which the teens knocked down a goodly number of traffic cones marking the boundaries.

They were told to follow a curving mini-race course as fast as possible while the instructor shouted at them to adjust the radio volume, eat a snack and talk on a cell phone. In the center of the track, another instructor ran out with an advertising sign as a further distraction.

Rachel caught on right away. As soon as the instructor explained what would happen, she said, “These are things I’m not supposed to do, right?”

Her dad confessed that he didn’t get it, and tried to do all the distractions while driving the course. The distraction course was the only one driven by the parents — separately from the teens.

Mostly, the parents attended motivational classes intended to teach them how to better relate to their kids. The idea was to get them to function more as coaches, positive and patient.

“We do it to take the elbows of the parents out of the ribs of the teens,” said Dean Omatsu, who developed the “Driving Expectations” course with Toyota. “Parents have a tendency to drive in on them,” he said. “We try to make the parents into coaches and mentors.”

At the end of the four-hour course, the teens were reunited with their parents and encouraged to enter into a contract specifying the responsibilities of each. Parents promised to be good role models and to practice what they preached to the teens, including always wearing seat belts, never drinking and driving, obeying traffic laws, and so on. The teens did the same; essentially promising to be careful and responsible.

In the end, the twins and their dad said they had learned a lot. Rachel said a program such as Toyota’s should be made a requirement for teens to get a driver’s license. After driving for about a year, she said that along the way she had picked up some of the things taught in the course, but thought it would have been better to get the information sooner.

Rachel also learned that she had developed a bad habit of hooking a hand backward on the steering wheel while turning. She did not even realize it until the instructor pointed it out.”I really do get distracted when I’m driving,” Rachel said.

Alyssa echoed that, saying she had learned to always be aware of her surroundings, and to resist being easily distracted. Distractions, she noted, could easily lead to an accident and all of the consequences, including not only injuries and death, but financial losses as well.

For me, there was a small validation of sorts, listening to the professional drivers tell my granddaughters some of the same things I had tried to teach them even before they obtained their learners’ permits.

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