My Daughter recently turned 16 and is diligently working to get her driver’s license. As any parent of a teen driver can tell you, this is one of the most contradiction inducing situations you may ever face as a parent. On one front, you are absolutely terrified that the kid who can’t even seem to find the ketchup in the pantry is going to be driving a 2 ton hunk of steel at 60 mph down a highway with hundreds of other idiots all around her. And on the other, you look forward to the day when you do not have to drive her or her brother to every single practice, class, lesson, trip or endeavor in the world. Finally a little free time you have earned after 16 years of parenting and playing uber driver that you can now use to sit at home and worry that they don’t kill themselves, the cat down the street, or the front fender on your car.
So imagine my interest when I saw a Facebook ad for the Ford Driving Skills for Life program. I looked up the program online and found out that it provided some real life - behind the wheel experience for my soon-to-be independent driver. As an added bonus the program was FREE and being offered in Columbus, Ohio - which is only a short jaunt up I-71 from our suburban Cincinnati home. They offer 4 different sessions over the weekend, morning and afternoon on both Saturday and Sunday - I promptly registered my daughter for the 8am Sunday morning class.
The day finally arrived and we woke early, grabbed some Starbucks and hit the road around 6am in order to arrive as near to 7:30 as possible. Ford has been offering this program for over 15 years, and does hundred of events per year. The experience shows, as this was a well oiled machine. We all met for a short introduction in a big tent set up in the parking lot. There were nearly 100 teen drivers (all with parents) at the event! They introduced all of the instructors - who were mostly race car drivers of some form or another, a couple of ex-cops, and school teacher thrown in for good measure. Next, they divided the kids into their groups and sent them out to the various classes across the property.
Meanwhile, they kept us parents back for a short chat on what life is like with a teen driver. They gave all kinds of horrifying stats about accident rates, talked to us about being good examples behind the wheel, and generally tried to scare us to death. It was really quite informative and entertaining. After describing each of the ‘stations’ our kids would experience during the event, they sent us out to catch back up to our kids.
During the 4 hour event the kids would get to partake in 4 different ‘behind the wheel’ experiences: distracted driving, impaired driving, hazard recognition, and vehicle handling. Each station lasted about 45 minutes and included both ‘classroom’ type instruction under a tent and real ‘behind the wheel’ driving experience.
My daughters’ first stop was at the Impaired driving station. The kids got to drive a small closed course of cones without any impairment. The second time through, they put on ‘drunk goggles’ and attempted to drive the same course. Needless to say - they had their eyes opened about what driving drunk was really like - and just how many accidents they would have had in the real world. In the class room tent one young lady was selected to do a field sobriety test; both with and without accessories that simulated being drunk. That was both extremely entertaining and at the same time very scary.
Our second stop was the hazard recognition segment. Here, the kids drove a car at hard acceleration down a straight away. They were then forced to make a decision to go left or right based upon a which light lit up on the course. They could not brake, only lift the accelerator pedal. The randomness of the light simulated an obstacle entering the roadway unexpectedly. It was quite amazing how well the kids did on this portion of the track. On the return side of the course they experienced the feel of anti-lock brakes kicking in during a hard stop. The class room portion focused on reaction times which they recorded both without and with cell phone distractions. Another eye-opener for the students.
The third stop for our group was the skid pad to experience vehicle handling and oversteer correction. They had 3 late model Mustangs set up with caster wheels under the back of the cars. They were designed to ‘break the tires loose’ at 15mph. As they drove the cars around a small oval cone course the back end would fish tail and they would need to learn how to correct the issue and straighten out the car. This is some real world experience that you DO NOT want them to learn in your car!
Our fourth and final stop was the distracted driving course. Here they got behind the wheel of a car and drove a small tight turn cone course. The first time without any distraction, the second they were texting a parent the entire time. The kids saw first hand how those few seconds glanced away form the road can have a serious impact on safety. The classroom portion on this stop focused on car maintenance and care. They discussed tire pressure, dip sticks (the part of the car, not my kid), wipers, idiot lights (again on the car) and other routine things to check on your car.
Finally, we ended up back in the big tent with all of the other participants. They did a short closing discussion and then handed us a completion certificate, which is good for an insurance discount with most insurance carriers (an added bonus!) What an incredible event - my daughter got some real experience on things that they do not teach you in driver’s ed. Things that can only be experienced when the stakes are much higher, and the consequences aren’t cones but precious lives and expensive mistakes. It was a great experience, that only cost a small investment of time, and one that I hope to do with my son when the time comes. Well done Ford!