Skids and Kids
Avoiding accidents is a skill that can be learned
Far off and safely to the right, small planes come and go, an incessant bee-buzz announcing a sprint to rotation and takeoff; a fluctuating give and take of engines and air flow accompanying touchdowns.
To the left, safe in the rustling grasses, stunted trees and sandy, dry pine barrens, rare and endangered Karner Blue Butterflies do silent takeoffs and landings of their own.
But here, twixt the two schools of flight at the Concord Airport, Aaron Cottreau, 16, has made a landing of his own - in the seat of a Volvo where, on an abandoned, clearly demarcated strip of runway, he's ready for takeoff, where he will learn driving secrets that should not be secret; that every young driver must know and every older driver should know.
This is our Sweet Ride this month and it's different; perhaps it is more a Sweet Ride to a Sweet Science (and driving a car is a science, not a mysterious undertaking).
This is the Stevens Advanced Driver Training skid school, where teens are taught in Volvos supplied at lightened lease rates by New Hampshire's Lovering Family Foundation. The Lovering family owns three Volvo franchises in the state and will soon provide the Volvos to the school at no cost. In addition, it helps to supply partial or full scholarships for many eligible students so they can learn what they don't learn in basic driver training.
I've written about this school in the past, and I always like to point out that I don't know anyone who's ever been killed parallel parking.
But I have received a letter from the father of a dead girl who rolled an SUV because she did not know how to properly use ABS or make an emergency lane change. If only she had known, he wrote.
And then there was the 16-year-old who, only days after taking the course, safely avoided a collision with a deer and managed to not go crashing into trees in the forest.
"I could have been killed,'' he told me.
So now comes Aaron on a day that provides both rain and sunshine - perfect.
He's at the wheel for a series of exercises, and like almost any young driver you ask says, at first, 35 miles per hour is not fast.
Try that in a school zone, these teens are told, before being sent out to navigate a tortuous twist of orange cones, most of them mowing down several of them. What if these were kids crossing the road? I like to ask them.
Aaron's mother, Christine, has a hearty laugh that goes from pleased to nervous as she watches her boy put through the paces - sometimes watching from a folding chair on the sidelines, other times planted in the same car, or another with an instructor giving demonstrations.
"Oh my God, Oh my God,'' she repeats several times - even while laughing. It is the reaction parents should have when you consider that most of the potentially dumb and dangerous situations their children will mimic today are also likely situations in which far too many young drivers - over-confident, egged on by friends, distracted by an array of dashboard entertainment - will find themselves in a real and deadly world.
Sandy Stevens is the originator of what is among the finest advanced driving schools in the country. They teach business groups, adults, police and others how to stay alive behind the wheel. In fact, one of the instructors this day, Jori Fairbanks, is a police officer herself, and she is palpably pleased each time she gets behind the wheel. Stevens is dead-on serious in promoting a safer world for young drivers.
That's because there are serious lessons to be taught here and each comes, inevitably, with some surprise to all.
Smooth, continuous turning of the wheel can get you through that patch of cones as though it were an emergency.
What is ABS and how do you use it? Most drivers don't know. It is a braking system that, in microseconds, sends brake power to any of the four wheels, releasing brake pads when it senses lockup. The students try it, see its results when one set of side wheels is placed on gravel and the other on macadam. Stutter steps of safety are revealed each time a wheel tries to lock up.
You do not pump your brakes if you have ABS. In an emergency, you put the brake pedal to the floor and leave it there. The car will go straight, as the kids learn in another drill. But if straight is not the answer - as illustrated by a wall of cones approached at highway speed that, in real life, could be a stalled car - then you steer. WITH THE BRAKES STILL ON.
And more: A cone is trailed on a rope behind a lead car - ostensibly set at a safe distance for highway speed. In a parallel lane a student keeps up with the cone as both cars whistle down the runway. The student knows that the lead car will soon do an emergency stop.
But can the student stop their own car before they reach what would, in real life, be the back bumper of the lead car? Almost never. Many, in fact, even knowing that a stop is coming, end up passing the dormant lead car. This is what is meant when there are warnings about following too closely.
Stevens, also a race car driver, understands there is a delicate balance between teaching young drivers techniques that might make them feel invincible and techniques that will save their lives.
Indeed, studies have shown that young drivers (a lethal group on the road) who have taken this course have the same accident rate as mature drivers. That is a huge leap.
And it is a leap on this Sweet Ride, in this Sweet Science - where lack of skills can mean a fatal knockout - with which every parent should gift their children - and themselves. NH