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Teen drivers get real-world experience

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Accident avoidance
Students at the teenage driving clinic learn how to handle their vehicles in a variety of situations, including wet roads, sudden stops and avoiding other cars.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

There's a sharp, rubbery smell that hangs in the air after a young driver slams on the brakes and stops -- just in time -- during an exercise at the teen driving clinic.

"When you can smell the brakes, that's when they are doing it right," says Susan Anderson, the clinic's classroom instructor. 

Getting it right -- doing the things drivers need to do in order to be safe on the road, is the focus of this day-long clinic. 

Student and teacher
Teen driver Mari Kise with her instructor Louis Zachary, at the Glacier Lakes Audi Driving Club. Kise is taking a day-long drivers training session to improve her ability to avoid accidents.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

"We don't consider them to be bad drivers just because they are young," says Anderson.

"You see so many things about teenagers as drivers now -- that they can't control their emotions, they can't control their impulses, and you shouldn't expect too much from them because they are young. I don't think that is correct," says Anderson.

Young drivers and specially trained adult volunteer instructors from the Glacier Lakes Audi Driving Club team up and run through various behind-the-wheel exercises. 

In between the roadwork, there's some classroom time, including the basics of car physics and control, and a pep talk on having confidence behind the wheel. 

"The nice thing here is if they make a mistake, the worst thing they are going to hit is a traffic cone," says Anderson. "So it is a safe environment for them to lose control of the car, try and regain it, and figure out what to do if they can't regain control." 

"The nice thing here is if they make a mistake, the worst thing they are going to hit is a traffic cone."

All new drivers need to have 30 hours of classroom instruction, as well as several hours of practice driving, before they can get their licenses.  Anderson says her training goes beyond what drivers education covers. 

"I think this amplifies it and takes it to the next level, to give them more real life experience in their car or their parents' car, so they will have less fear of that unknown," Anderson says. "I think that's a big problem for a lot of drivers in general. They've never had a car spin, they've never had a car slide. And when it happens, they are terrified more of the unknown than what the car is actually doing."

The exercise the teen drivers are getting ready to do this time is called accident avoidance. 

According to figures from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety, in 2005, a number of young drivers weren't so lucky in avoiding a crash. In that year, 14 percent of the drivers involved in crashes were teenagers, and  110 of those young drivers died. 

That's one of the reasons Dr. Bruce Parker, an emergency room physician from St. Paul, is involved as an instructor in this teen driving clinic. Dr. Parker has had first-hand experience  treating young crash victims. 

"I've told about 300 kids they just killed their best friend or girlfriend because they lost control of a car, slid, hit a tree, something like that. And I don't like it," Parker says.

Classroom instruction
The teen driving clinic also includes classroom time, which covers the basics of car physics and control, and a pep talk on having confidence behind the wheel.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

The high rate of crashes and deaths involving teenage drivers is a nationwide issue, and several years ago, caught the attention of an Ohio juvenile judge.

"I tell every kid that comes into the courtroom for a traffic offense that driving is the only life-and-death responsibility we have," says Judge Jim Ronk of Knox County, Ohio. "Something where people's safety is directly related to whether we do a good job or a bad job."

Judge Ronk waives court costs and fines for young drivers who've had some kind of moving violation, including speeding, failing to control their car or running stop signs.

Instead, he sends them to a special teen driving school, at the Mid Ohio racetrack in Lexington, Ohio. Prior to the program, state troopers would lecture young drivers on highway dangers.

"I'm not sure they gave the kids the same tools as  hopefully this program does," says Ronk. "It is a question of trying to train them to react better when they are faced with those real-world situations, and you aren't going to get that watching a movie about traffic accidents."

The judge says about 300 first-time offenders go through the program each year. The county gets a lower rate on the school's fees. While figures aren't officially kept, Judge Ronk says anecdotally, recidivism rates among the drivers who went through the program appear to have gone down. 

Minnesota does not have a similar program. But in 27 counties, young offenders -- actually any young driver who wants to participate -- can go through an interactive classroom driving course called Alive at 25. 

Organizers say it helps young drivers better understand their actions and responsibilities. But it doesn't include any behind-the-wheel exercises.

Behind the wheel, at the teenage driving clinic in Rosemount, Mari Kise seems pretty surprised when, in this exercise, she slams on the brakes, only to have the rear of her car swerve to the left. 

Kise, who's from Edina, says it is a completely different experience out on the track, versus being in a classroom. 

"What they taught me in drivers ed, it's helped me. But out here, it's real life, it's put to the test, and you have to know what you're doing," says Kise. "And the instructor has really helped me figure out what I have to do."

Kise says the thing that most surprised her is how quickly things can happen on the road. 

"How fast you need to react, and how fast the car reacts when you put it to the test," she says. "In a classroom you can talk about it all you want, but until you get out there, you won't know what is going to happen."