Seventeen-year-old Steven Kirsty sat confidently in the driver’s seat of the Ford Focus, all smiles, as he slowly navigated the car through a maze of orange cones in the back parking lot of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School.
The second time through the course he gained confidence and speed. But when the instructor from the Ford Driving Institute asked him to type a text message while driving — an act that’s been illegal on New York state roadways since 2009 — things changed.
Kirsty, intent on typing a coherent message, swerved all over the course. Orange cones bumped under the tires. He hit 11 of them and never did finish the text message. “I didn’t hit a sign!” the BH-BL senior announced proudly.
That exercise, part of Ford Motor Company’s Driving Skills for Life program, was one of three hands-on driving experiences, overseen by professional drivers, that licensed Burnt Hills student drivers participated in Wednesday. To the kids, the drills were fun, but they were designed to teach serious driving skills: hazard recognition, vehicle handling, space management and speed management.
Those skills are vital for teen drivers to master but aren’t always taught effectively by parents or driver’s education programs, said Chuck DeWeese, assistant commissioner with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. “These kids [ages] 16 to 24, they make up, I think, 9 percent of the licensed drivers, but they’re involved in 20 percent of the crashes,” he said. “They think they’re invincible. You can teach them all you want at home as a parent, you can teach them in driver’s ed, but until you get them on a track like this and make them skid — we don’t do this with our kids when we teach them how to drive.”
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School was one of two schools in the state chosen to participate in the Ford Driving Skills for Life program, a 30-city national training tour, designed to equip students with fundamental skills necessary for safe driving. Colonie Central High School students will take part in the program today.
Besides driving drills, the program at BH-BL included an assembly, attended by all juniors and seniors, where Jacy Good of White Plains delivered a sobering message. When she and her parents were driving home from her college graduation in 2008, an 18-year-old man who was talking on his cellphone ran a red light. An 18-wheeler swerved into oncoming traffic to miss hitting him and instead hit Good’s car.
“Both my parents were dead on the scene. I was given a 10 percent chance of surviving. I had half a dozen broken bones, all kinds of organ damage,” she said, her voice slurred slightly as a result of a brain injury from the accident. Good’s message to the young drivers was clear: “No conversation, no text message, can possibly be that important,” she said.
The screech of tires filled the air as students steered a white Ford Mustang around an oval track in the parking lot, learning to correctly recover from a slide. Senior Megan Johnson, 17, was nervous about giving it a try but afterward was glad she did.
“It was definitely interesting,” she said. “I had trouble getting it the first time around, but I learned how to control the car when it skids or drifts. Icy patches this winter will be a little easier. It was fun.”
“Driving drills are fun,” agreed Mike Speck, lead facilitator and lead instructor at Ford’s Driving Skills for Life program. “They enjoy it and it opens up their brain to the ultimate message, which is what they think about when they’re driving has the single greatest effect on their driving experience. The decisions that they make seal their fate before they even get in the car.”
Across the parking lot, a physics class looked on as a rollover simulator — what looked like a truck cab on a spit — demonstrated what would happen in a 30-mile-per-hour rollover. The dummies sitting without seatbelts in the cab bounced around inside, then flew out the open windows. One landed 15 feet away.
Back on the course, students drove a Ford Fiesta tentatively, with “fatal vision” goggles over their eyes. The goggles demonstrate how vision would be impaired when driving under the influence of alcohol.
“We make sure they understand that those goggles only affect their vision. It does not affect their cognitive ability,” noted Speck. “We make sure that they understand that when people drink alcohol, they can’t see straight, they don’t realize that they can’t see straight and the worst part of it is that they don’t care that they can’t see straight.”
A critical component to all of the driving exercises is failure, said Speck. “We want to make sure that when they text and drive that they fail at it, when they do the vehicle handling, at least once they fail at that process, so that they can see how easy it is for a car to actually spin out,” he said. Then, instructors offer suggestions on how the students can succeed — at driving safely.
“Have fun at your destination, not on the way there, guys,” Speck advised a group of teens gathered in the parking lot. “Drive at the speed limit, and you guys will be OK.”
Ford Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) is a national, award-winning teen safe driving program. In response to growing awareness about teen fatalities and driver distraction, the Ford Motor Company Fund along with the Governors Highway Safety Association announced in February a $1 million expansion of the program.
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: