The Ford Motor Company employees and dealers in the room applauded when Arnie Cuellar mentioned that he owned a diesel-powered F-250 pickup truck. But the Phoenix Police Department motorcycle officer assigned to the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety wasn’t here to sell trucks. He was here to save lives.
Handing a teenager the keys to a car or truck without giving them proper training is the same as handing them a loaded weapon, Officer Cuellar said, lamenting the fact that because of funding cutbacks and liability issues, fewer and fewer school districts are teaching teens to drive.
The Ford folks had come to Phoenix – and will be going to six other major cities – to announce a multi-pronged driving safety program that includes Driving Skills for Life, Ford’s five-year-old teen driving education program that puts young drivers through a series of exercises designed to better equip them for real-world driving.
But teens aren’t the only one who will benefit from the programs sponsored by Ford, which also will offer:
* Corazon de mi vida, which is Spanish for “You are the center of my life” and provides Spanish-language instruction in the importance of the proper installation and use of child safety seats. Statistics shows that the fatality rate for Latino children ages 5 to 12 in vehicle crashes is 72 percent greater than the fatality rate for non-Latino white children.
* Car Care Clinics for teenage girls and for Girl Scouts (the scouts can earn their Car Sense badges by attending the clinic). Topics will include using vehicle safety features, the importance of basic car maintenance, personal security, driving safety awareness skills and a look at possible careers for women in the auto industry.
Ford shared not only its vision, but samples of the various courses, including two of the three behind-the-wheel sessions from Driving Skills for Life.
The dynamic activities are led by current and former professional racing drivers and their emphasis isn’t on learning to parallel park but on what to do in an emergency situation, or how to avoid such situations in the first place. (The session we didn’t experience was the one on not being a distracted driver. Texting while driving is, to say the least, strongly frowned upon.)
In one of our hands-on sessions, we drove into a simulated intersection where, at the last second, lights indicated which of three lanes to enter. Just as with more athletic activities, safe driving is a matter of hand-eye-foot coordination, with the emphasis on the eyes and looking well down the road so you can see what’s coming and react before you find yourself in a hazardous situation.
The importance of the driver’s eyes became even more apparent when we moved to the vehicle handling track, a small, coned-off oval track where we drove specially equipped Ford Mustangs. The special equipment was a set of casters under the rear axle. When activated by the instructor sitting in the passenger’s seat, jack screws lifted the axle so the car rode not on its rear tires but on the small caster wheels, basically spinning the car out of control.
Well, not really out of control, because the point of the exercise was to demonstrate how, by looking not where the car was going but where you as the driver wanted the car to go, you actually could maintain enough control to keep from hitting obstacles as you regained complete control and headed on down the road.
Even for an experienced driver, it takes a few laps to get the hang of it. For an inexperienced 16-year-old with a new driver’s license, such an exercise could be the difference between a close call and a visit to the emergency room.
So watch for word – in the news media or at your school – about Ford’s safety programs coming to your town, and then do whatever you can to take part.
As Officer Cuellar noted, there’s a big difference between a crash and an accident.
Crashes often can be avoided, an accident cannot. “An accident,” he said, “is what happens in your pants when you’re in a crash.”
-- Larry Edsall