Few rites of passage are more frightening to parents than handing over car keys to a teen driver. But handing over car keys during Minnesota’s mean winter months sure makes my shortlist.
Our community already was reeling from the death of 16-year-old Alyssa Ettl of Lakeville, who in December lost control of her car on a slush-covered road, when we learned of at least two more tragedies involving young people.
Marie Ellen Ahmann, 21, of Woodbury, died on New Year’s Eve when her car careened off a road and down a 40-foot embankment into icy waters. Nineteen-year-old Taylor J. Casey of Hudson, Wis., died in his flipped SUV on New Year’s Day.
I was certain that these untimely deaths, taken together, would be unusual to Bill Wade, who lives in balmy Louisville, Ky. Wade gently corrected me.
“Unfortunately, it’s not,” said Wade, who is national program manager for the Tire Rack Street Survival Program. His 10-year-old, full-day teen driver safety program comes to Rosemount’s Dakota County Technical College four times a year, including later this month.
“Over 5,000 teenagers are killed annually in crashes across the U.S.,” Wade said. That’s kids driving in all kinds of weather conditions.
“Every day,” he said, “I’m bombarded by these stories.”
But he acknowledged that winter driving poses unique challenges that are addressed in the street survival course. Although the Jan. 18 program in Rosemount filled up weeks ago, others are planned (go to www.streetsurvival.org).
Until then, Ward offers potentially lifesaving strategies for teens, and for everybody else: Slow down. And pay attention. More on both below.
When Wade’s daughter turned 16, he was “terrified” to learn how little it took to get a driver’s license in Kentucky. This was several years before his state adopted graduated licenses.
“A car guy” and race-car safety instructor, Wade gladly accepted an opportunity to write the original curriculum for a teen driving course. He then began marketing the program to high schools, which turned out to be a mistake.
“We thought they were our customers,” Wade said of the teens, “but we found out quickly that teens don’t want to do this. Once they get their driver’s license, they think the training stops. We needed to get to their parents.”
Wade attends up to 15 programs around the country annually, which are open to licensed and permitted drivers, ages 15 to 21. “In a 40-person class,” he said, “there might be one who signed himself or herself up. The majority are pissed off that they had to get up on a Saturday morning at 8 a.m. But they end up having fun doing stuff they’re not usually allowed to do.”
The eight-hour, $75 course includes classroom sessions, but mostly behind-the-wheel opportunities in the students’ own cars. In Rosemount, they learn emergency braking and skid control on one mile of pavement — or on a one-mile sheet of ice — including being allowed to lose control.
“You have to know what the car feels like right up to that point,” Wade said, “so you know how to save it.”
Young drivers are accompanied by skilled volunteer driving coaches. Locally, the North Star Chapter of the BMW Car Club of America provides most of the instructors.
“They’re giving up a day to save a teenager’s life,” Wade said. “I can’t sing their praises enough.”
Until your kids can meet them sitting shotgun, Wade wants teen drivers to do two things. First, slow down.
“Teens need to be even more diligent in winter,” he said. “Put more space between you and the car in front of you,” he says.
Second, pay more attention. Put away the cellphone. Don’t turn around to talk to a friend sitting in the back seat.
“This is always true, but especially on slick and snowy surfaces,” Wade said. “You can be going 20 mph but if you’re not paying attention, you’re not seeing what’s going on. A car can slide sideways, even at 20 mph, for a long time.”
He offers teens the “10-second rule.” Pick a permanent object up ahead, such as a tree, a sign or a pole. Count to 10. If you get to that object before you reach 10, you aren’t looking far enough down the road. Try again with something farther away. Keep your focus there.
Following these rules “won’t make all the fatalities go away,” Wade acknowledges, “but they will lessen the numbers.”
Kathleen McDowell signed up her son, Michael, for an all-day winter driving class when he was 17. She told him it wasn’t optional. He’s 24 now and a very good driver, said his mom.
“It was the best money I spent,” said McDowell, referring to the Youth/Novice Crash Avoidance Course, offered through St. Cloud State University’s Center for Continuing Studies. The course (www.mnsafetycenter.org) is now a half-day course, offered monthly, for $70.
“It gave me more peace of mind,” McDowell said. “My son keeps those lessons in mind when he drives in this weather.”
McDowell also made Michael drive with her through every season. “I told my son, ‘there is no shortage of idiots on the freeway.’ ”
Similar to Street Survival, the St. Cloud course focuses on off-road recovery to prevent rollovers, skid control and the dangers of texting and driving. (Some insurance companies offer a discount for safe-driving courses, so check with yours.)
There’s a parental component, too. “This is a passion for us,” said Judy Dingmann, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center, which developed the course.
“That 30 hours behind the wheel is just not enough.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum