WALDORF, Md.—To a casual observer, Regency Furniture Stadium, home of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs baseball team, probably looked like it was playing host to a weekend autocross. There were cones set up in the empty lot as I pulled in and some interesting cars to park alongside, many displaying the subtle tells of trackday service. But on this unseasonably cold and windswept Sunday morning, something else was afoot. The cones were not arranged in the sinuous, continuous course you might expect if time trials were the order of the day.
A closer look revealed that more was going on here. To one side of the stadium's parking lot, a cone sat alone in the middle of a wide expanse of tarmac. Elsewhere, others were clustered together to delineate other obstacles to negotiate—a slalom course and so on. And while a handful of the cars up front obviously belonged to enthusiasts, the vast majority were much more… suburban. That's because I was actually here to visit a local event being held by the Tire Rack Street Survival school. It's just one of a number of events that take place across the country with the goal of instilling good driving habits in impressionable young minds.
You don't have to squint to see the need for programs like these. More than 37,000 people die on US roads each year, and drivers under the age of 25 are well represented in the annual tabulations. But the data is more complicated than that, and road deaths among young drivers have actually been on the decrease compared to a 29-percent year-on-year increase in fatal crashes involving drivers over the age of 65. Getting our elderly drivers to go to a car-control clinic would probably be a brilliant idea, too, but it's easier to get 'em while they're young, particularly if you're the responsible adult who provides the vehicle, insurance, and gas money. Hence the collection of parents giving up their Sunday mornings (and paying $95) to spend time with their teen drivers and some cones.
Techniques from the track
At the risk of an overgeneralization, perhaps the biggest difference between the Street Survival school and your typical driver's ed class is the instructors. I don't know about you (and to be fair I learned to drive on a different continent), but I wouldn't have said my own driving instructor was an enthusiast. But the instructors at Street Survival are definitely into driving. The program draws on local chapters of enthusiast clubs—this event in Maryland was hosted by the National Capital Chapter of the BMW Car Club of America, for instance. Which in turn explained the small collection of track-prepped BMW M sports cars outside…
Indeed, much of instructor Rafael Garces' classroom curriculum would be familiar to attendees at a racing school. The importance of looking in the right place, for example: you go where your eyes are pointing, and your situational awareness is diminished if you're only focused on the road a few feet ahead. Also taught are the fundamentals of vehicle dynamics—four tire-contact patches are all that connect you to the road, and they're affected by weight transfer as you accelerate, brake, and turn. But the point of these lessons is not to improve lap times—it's to teach good driving technique.
I noticed that Garces made a point of explaining some of the various safety systems that are now fitted to most new cars. Since the aim here is to teach good driving and not to teach handling beyond the limit of grip, the students at Street Survival keep all of them turned on.
"When the question is raised, we remind them that you don't ever want to drive on the street with those features disabled. Since we are teaching the students how to handle an emergency in their own car, we want them to understand how the car will respond with all the features activated," Garces told me. "Most of the time when the question about traction control is raised, it is by a parent who has some performance-driving experience. Since Tire Rack Street Survival is not about driving fast, we try to have the students focus on safely handling emergencies that they could experience on normal roads."
(He added that, occasionally, he might turn off traction control on the skid pad for particularly proficient students to show them how much the car is helping them. But, Garces added, "turning off the controls is much more of the exception rather than the rule.")
Do what now?
The thing that stuck with me the most from observing the Street Survival school in action happened relatively early on in the classroom. Apparently, many driver's ed programs currently teach kids to hold the steering wheel at eight and four o'clock, something that almost caused me to fall off my stool. The (spurious) reasoning is that, in the event of the airbag deploying, hands that are down low are less likely to get injured. As should be patently obvious, holding the wheel down low like that is far from optimal compared to nine and three o'clock; you simply don't have enough control of the wheel, which makes an airbag deployment more likely in the first place.
"We try not to point out too many 'mistakes' in the traditional driver's ed program," Garces told me. "However, the hand positioning is too critical for us to ignore and is something that we need to address to make sure [students] understand the rationale for what we teach them compared to what the traditional driver's ed program teaches."