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Teen driver -- one dad's solution

  • Story Highlights
  • Driving instructor launches "Street Survival," a teen safety driving program
  • Students start the class by cleaning up their vehicles to avoid stuff sliding around
  • Participants bring their own vehicles to the full-day event
  • The class teaches how to avoid blind spots and the risks of talking on a cell phone
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By J.D. Booth
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(AOL Autos) -- One need not have a teenage driver in the family to know that the link between young drivers and motor vehicle crashes is an ongoing and costly public issue, both in lives lost and property damage.

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Teen drivers account for $34 billion annually in medical expenses, lost work, and other related car crash costs.

On the lives lost side of the ledger, the impact is staggering.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for more than 4,700 deaths in the 16-19 age group in 2004, the most recent year reported.

Similar findings come from the a study done by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation for AAA.

The study reveals that drivers ages 15 to 17 in 2006 were involved in about 974,000 crashes, injuring 406,427 people and 2,541 fatalities.

From an economic standpoint, the impact may be just as sobering: crashes involving teen drivers aged 15-17 accounted for $34 billion annually in medical expenses, lost work, property damage, quality of life loss and other related costs, according to the AAA-sponsored study.

Little wonder then that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group, four times more likely than older drivers on a per mile driven basis, the risk being highest for 16-year-old drivers.

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But while the link between teen driving and accidents is a matter of both public record and sheer numbers, for Bill Wade the biggest number was one -- represented by a teenage daughter who'd had her driving permit for six months.

"When I checked out what it was going to take for her to get her license, it was disappointing," recalls Wade, who at the time (2002) was a high performance driving instructor with the BMW Car Club of America.

That was enough reason for Wade to spearhead the launch of Street Survival, a program of the BMW Car Club of America Foundation, set up that year at least in part to address the issue of teen driving.

One might be forgiven for connecting BMW with high speed and wondering: what might this have to do with safe driving?

Besides the automaker having no organizational connection to the BMW Car Club of America and the BMW CCA Foundation being even further removed organizationally, Wade says the Street Survival initiative is quite distinctive from the car control clinics that help BMW owners get the most from their vehicle in a very low speed controlled environment, typically in a large parking lot.

Those clinics also act as a means of drafting participants into the CCA's high performance schools, where squealing tires and high speed are more the norm.

Which is all fine and dandy, except for one thing.

"Teenagers are getting the shaft," says Wade, who says states are increasingly abandoning driver education programs that once gave young drivers at least a controlled head start on what to expect when they get behind the wheel.

"At the same time, we're putting them in more powerful cars than ever, without the proper training."

Sponsored by Tire Rack, the Street Survival program distinguishes itself by having participants bring their own vehicles to the full-day event, something Wade says is key.

"A lot of other programs bring in provided cars, but if the young drivers are going home and driving a handed down minivan, there's going to be a big difference. We want to show them how to handle the car they're going to be using, its limitations and how to respond."

Each of the 80 classes planned for 2008 typically start as early as 7:30AM, with students (most of whom aren't happy to be there at that hour) starting by cleaning up their vehicles. "We don't want loose stuff sliding around during the driving portion of the course," notes Wade.

From there, the average 26 students are paired up with instructors on a two-to-one ratio, starting out together in a half hour session before splitting into driving and classroom sessions held throughout the day, accumulating some three hours of driving time in total.

At the start, drivers will do a quick car safety check, looking for the obvious and not so obvious. One area -- no surprise given the program's sponsorship -- is tire inflation.

"More often than not, 80 percent of the time, we have to add air to the tires," says Wade, who adds that Tire Rack hands out a small tire gauge to students. "Most people don't understand that the tire loses a pound of air a month, meaning that they need to check air pressure at least monthly, if not weekly."

Students go back to basics, learning how to sit properly and even how to position mirrors to avoid blind spots.

"Unless you're driving a big quad cab pickup, there really aren't blind spots," says Wade. "We teach them how to position their mirrors to avoid them."

While there are other programs, at least one (Driver's Edge) being free (Street Survival costs $60), Wade says there's more than enough room for any degree of competition.

"This is a huge problem and we're generating 16 year olds every day."

As far as Wade's now 21-year-old daughter, the lessons of Street Survival seem to have stuck.

"She's gone through the program twice," her dad said. "Her experience has changed the way we've presented the classroom program in that we now talk about distractions, not using your cell phone, not texting. Now she won't answer the phone; if someone is with her, she'll hand them the phone to answer for her."

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