What's your teenaged son
or daughter's life worth?
For about the cost of the deductible on your car
insurance, you can equip your teenager to be a much
more aware and - hopefully - therefore a better and
Think of it as a head start program for the road
trip through the rest of his or her life.
Yes, accidents happen, and especially, it seems,
to young new drivers. But learning how to avoid,
or at least mitigate, an accident not only saves
your child the physical and emotional trauma of a
crash, but it could save you the cost of your insurance
In the last couple of years, I've watched and written
about several safe-driving programs for teenagers.
Each has the same objective: To help new drivers
become safer drivers. Many of the programs are sponsored
by automakers and affiliated companies. Each combines
classroom-style instruction with varying amounts
of behind-the-wheel experience. Unlike traditional
driver's ed classes that used to be part of high
school curriculum, the point isn't passing the state
driver's license test, but equipping the new driver
with information and skills to avoid becoming another
in the horrible statistics regarding teenagers and
It's one thing to watch and write, but another to
participate, so when the folks at the Bob Bondurant
School of High Performance Driving offered me entry
into one of their typically racing-oriented driving
courses, I asked if I could take their teen class
instead. I figure that, at age 61, I'm just a transposed
16-year-old anyway, plus, I was curious not only
to see what a bunch of racers would teach newbee
teen drivers, but figured that, at age 61, I could
use a refresher on how to react on the road.
One of the first things my eight classmates - seven
boys, one girl, all high school sophomores -- and
I heard, however, is that it isn't about reacting.
It's about anticipating. And several times throughout
the day we were reminded about the importance of
concentration and focus behind the wheel, and that
focus focused on keeping our eyes up and looking
well down the road while also aware of the cars around
us and anticipating what each of those vehicles might
do. Not only will you be aware of traffic, we were
reminded, but you'll see those photo radar cameras
that are popping up along so many roads.
The day started with what Bondurant calls "ground
school," a classroom session that covered the
importance of concentration, vision, smoothness,
consistency, awareness and anticipation. We heard
about "target fixation" and how a car tends
to go where the driver's looking, so when you have
to make an emergency maneuver, look for an opening,
not at a tree. We also heard that what we were hearing
was the same things Bondurant instructors tell professional
racers when they come to school, and that includes
drivers such as NASCAR stars Jimmy Johnson and Jeff
"Vision" was an oft-repeated word, and
we were told it's not just a matter of looking ahead,
but of thinking ahead. Instructors told us an aware
driver can tell that the driver in that pickup is
talking on a cell phone or otherwise distracted and
thus more likely to wander into our lane.
We learned how to hold the steering wheel to maintain
control, about "contact patch" and how
the weight transfer under acceleration, braking and
turning affects your ability to maneuver safely.
Finally, we headed out to the skid pad, basically
a large, parking lot-sized patch of pavement where
we went through a succession of exercises, starting
with a ride around the throttle steering circle where
we learned how easy it was to lose control of a vehicle
even at speeds less than 20 miles per hour.
Each Bondurant instructor worked with three students.
Each student was assigned his or her own Pontiac
Solstice to drive for the day.
To get started, and to get acquainted with our sporty
roadsters, we did runs through a slalom course, steering
between cones, first at 25 miles per hour, then at
30, 35 and 40. The point not only was to get us up
to speed, but to demonstrate why you don't drive
40 mph in a 25-mph residential zone. The point was
made: While it was easy to avoid the cones at 25
mph, it became exponentially more challenging with
each 5-mph increase in speed.
Next, we parked our cars and got into one of the
school's skid cars, Cadillac CTS sedans mounted on
what look like automotive training wheels. Actually,
the extra wheels are on outriggers that allow the
instructors to raise the front or rear wheels so
they lose contact, inducing the car to skid so the
student driver can start developing the muscle memory
needed to anticipate and avoid, or at least react
and control, a car in such a situation.
Then it was back into the Solstices for laps around
the handling oval. We were particularly impressed
when we were told that even Bob Bondurant, a former
racing champion and founder of the school, before
he takes a vehicle out onto one of the school's race
tracks, drives it around this oval, laid out with
plenty of runoff room, to get a feeling for how it
responds in acceleration, braking and turning.
The oval is short, but with curves of varying radii,
it provides a place for learning vehicle dynamics,
car control and even how to deal safely with traffic.
Every so often, we were called over to an infield
parking area were our instructor climbed into the
passenger's seat for some personalized guidance on
our driving. In my case, I need to work on holding
the brake a little longer before releasing it more
After a lot of laps - I was impressed throughout
the day with how much time we were getting behind
the wheel - we moved to a braking exercise, first
stopping our cars from 65 miles per hour without
engaging the anti-lock feature on the braking system,
then learning how to slow and steering around an
obstacle while deploying the ABS.
While ABS may not shorten braking distance, the
technology allows the driver to continue to steer
the car and avert a potential collision.
Lunch followed - pizza (after all, we're teenagers!).
The instructors gone, we talked among ourselves about
what we'd learned. The skid car and oval were the
most fun, the students agreed; the slalom and braking
were the most eye-opening.
Their parents would have been pleased to hear the
One dad said he had tried to instruct his son on
driving, but realized "it's one thing coming
from a parent," but that the same words from
a professional instructor might carry more weight.
"I want him to be a safer and more aware driver,"
dad said, adding that one thing he hoped his son
would learn at the school was to gain confidence
so he wouldn't panic when engaged in potential dangerous
situations on the road.
That parent wasn't alone. Another said his teenager
also needed to develop confidence as a driver and
hoped the school would help his child get through
the typical new-driver fears.
Another parent said his son had done quite a bit
of go-karting and was perhaps a little too comfortable
behind the wheel. He hoped the Bondurant experience
and instruction from professional drivers with racing
experience might bring his son's attitude back toward
the realities of driving in traffic.
One parent noted that the enrollment fee was almost
identical to the deductible on his auto insurance
policy. "If he avoids one accident
dad added. "I only wish I'd have sent my daughters
After lunch it was back to the classroom for a few
minutes, then out to the skid pad for an accident-avoidance
exercise in which we'd drive down a road that opened
into three lanes, each marked by lights. As we approached,
two of the lights would turn red and - without using
the brakes -- we'd have to maneuver safely into the
indicated lane. Rather than braking, we were told
to lift off the gas pedal (shifting weight toward
the front of the car and the wheels that steer),
then steer toward the correct lane, then squeeze
back on the gas (again, rebalancing the car to put
some power to the pavement).
After working on that process a few times, we'd
do the same exercise, but this time maneuvering with
ABS fully engaged.
The exercise was intense, and difficult, and our
cars often came in contact with the lane-marking
cones. Afterward, we were reminded of how much concentration
it took to try to avoid the simulated accidents in
a controlled environment. We were asked if it would
be possible to be that focused if we also were trying
to chat on a cell phone, manipulate an iPod or while
talking with a bunch of friends in the car. It was
a sobering discussion.
Finally, the students met their most daunting if
perhaps more light-hearted challenge. The last exercise
of the day was done in Pontiac G8 sedans. It was
a series of parking drills that involved various
scenarios, including parallel parking. Once again,
we were reminded that there are dangers even when
driving at the slowest of speeds.
Driving done, it was back into the classroom for
a debriefing. The students were encouraged and eager
to offer feedback. A couple mentioned how difficult
parallel parking had been.
One said he was impressed by how it's sometimes
better to use the throttle than the brakes, and regardless,
how important it is to keep your eyes up and well
down the road.
"Getting out of a skid or 'drift' is harder
than it looks," said another.
"Considering it was school, and on Saturday,
it was fun," said another.
One teen said he was surprised at how responsive
the cars were to driver input. Another said she felt
much more comfortable driving, much more in control
of the car than she had before the day began.
As we left the classroom and returned to the roadways,
one of our teachers offered this final instruction:
"Use your new powers for good, not for evil."
here to learn about other teenage driving safety