Sunday, April 27, 2008

Peace of Mind for Parents of Teen Drivers

My son's first solo drive – ever – turned out to be during the deluge last weekend. He called me on the phone to say he was starting out, and that he was already soaked from walking the 20 feet necessary to get in the car. It was 9 o'clock at night; he was leaving from Remington where there are no street lights and where it tends to flood during a light rain shower.

They were not the circumstances I would have chosen for his maiden run.

His dad and I worried in Goldvein for the next 50 minutes or so. When we heard the gravel crunching on the driveway, we tried to pull ourselves together and pretend we had forgotten he was even out of the house.

We had fretted, but not half as much as we might have. Carson had, just the day before, received his certificate from the New Driver Car Control Clinic for teenagers, sponsored by Fauquier Hospital. Carson had absorbed some practical knowledge -- and some valuable practice -- through the clinic, and was a better driver for it. I know that because I saw for myself what he learned. Carson and I attended together; it's a requirement of the course that parents attend with their teenagers.

The clinic began Friday night, with an abbreviated version of the usual hour and a half presentation in the Sycamore Rooms of Fauquier Hospital. The session was abbreviated because our instructor, an astoundingly upbeat young man named Brennan Lollar, had suffered through a plane debacle in Baltimore and had been wrung through the wringer of a Northern Virginia rush hour.

Brennan won the restless crowd over immediately with his sense of humor and obvious commitment to helping new drivers escape fatalities. His Friday night offering consisted of a multi-media presentation that related practical advice about how to avoid the fastest-growing dangers to drivers -- off-road recovery and median-strip rollover accidents.

The sometimes deadly results of off-road recovery accidents (when one wheel of the car slips off the road's shoulder and the driver over-compensates by jerking the car back onto the road) were illustrated by the story of one teenage girl who was left permanently crippled, told from her wheelchair. Of course, we all knew the story was meant to make an impression, and of course, it did. I wanted desperately to know that Carson would have the tools to handle an emergency situation safely.

The presentation was well done. It explained the physics of each scenario and the simple steps that would help to avoid disaster. Brennan explained that in most accidents, drivers have about 3 seconds to identify the danger, develop a plan and execute it. Typically, drivers take 1 ½ seconds, reacting by slamming on the brakes and/or jerking the wheel. That's because most of us have never had to react to such a situation before; the brain has no information about how to handle it. The purpose of the New Driver Car Control Clinic is to program the brain through learned experience.

That's where Saturday's lessons came into play.

Each teen driver was driving his or her own family car. Walkie talkies allowed Brennan to communicate with all cars simultaneously as the cars lined up and performed the exercises one at a time. Driving “coaches,” (an honorary title only) were told to sit in the passenger seat and refrain from offering advice or criticism. Duct tape for the parents was optional.

I think I had the tougher job. Sure, Carson had to slalom the car among tightly placed cones, brake quickly and safely on wet, slippery pavement and steer to avoid a (simulated) truck. But I had to keep my mouth shut through it all. And I didn't even get a certificate.

Carson had a lot of fun learning about our car's brakes and how they would react under different circumstances. He and the other teens enjoyed making skid marks in the parking lot of Lord Fairfax Community College. Carson also understands a lot more about steering now. Brennan pointed out that most drivers only use a third of the turning radius on a car, but in an emergency situation, sometimes you have to use it all to steer yourself clear.

Drivers completed a number of runs for a half dozen or so exercises and began to feel more confident. All were smiling, even the coaches, who had been sitting in the cars – (mostly) silent – for four hours. Brennan made the time fly with jokes, raucous encouragement and funny stories about previous clinics.

Just before handing out the certificates to the drivers, Brennan allowed the coaches to take a turn at a couple of the exercises. It was just as much fun for us parents, and I think we learned a thing or two as well.

I pray that my son will be one of the lucky ones who never has to face a potential accident. But I feel better knowing he's had this experience to help him through it.

Fauquier Hospital brings the New Driver Car Control Clinic to Warrenton twice a year. It's tremendously valuable and should be mandatory for all new drivers.

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