Nothing in life prepares you quite like experience. Some of us learn the hard way. In other cases, the hard way isn’t necessarily so hard thanks to some great teachers and lots of practical lessons.
I recently brought my eldest boys—18 and 16, respectively—to the Driving Skills for Life Course at the DuPage County airport, sponsored by Ford Motor Company. Ford puts on this local event each summer for at least two reasons: the first is brand visibility (let’s not be coy about that); the second is much more sensible, especially for teens that might be pre-disposed to the so-called need for speed.
Not unlike what you might expect at a NASCAR event, Ford sets up shop on a flat course of wide lanes and asphalt. It reminded me of a scene straight out of Days of Thunder—the bright orange cones, the heavy drum coming from the exhaust pipes of sleek Mustangs. The initial impression I got was one of pure adrenaline.
But Ford’s intention isn’t some kind of stunt-driving fantasy-come-to-life. This is very much about the mechanics of safe driving, albeit with a heart-thumping twist. Me and my boys had the opportunity to soak in some demos, sit in on a few group discussions with experts, and eventually hit the pavement. What I enjoyed most: Watching my boys test out a few things they wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to do themselves, from within the setting of a controlled environment. As someone who advocates for safe roads and better driving, I found this to be an invaluable reminder—for me and my boys—of the power that cars possess and the responsibilities that come with it.
Here are just some of things we learned, with input from my boys:
Lecture: Learning from Life: A Series of Misadventures as Told by Professionals
“My biggest takeaway was learning about what to do when someone gets into a car crash,” said my 16-year-old Leo, who just received his first driver’s license. “You think you should do one thing, but lots of times it’s about doing the opposite. I think the most important thing to remember was to stay calm and make sure no one is hurt. I also found it really helpful that this was coming from local police officers about real life driving experiences. If anyone knows, it’s them.”
Lecture: Distracted Driving
“They gave us the goggles,” Leo said, referring to the infamous “Drunk Specs,” the ones that simulate what it’s like to drive while intoxicated. “It’s like driving in a cloud. You can’t see a thing. It’s scary and crazy to think that people risk their lives in such a careless way. Losing control of my senses is one thing I never want to experience, especially when I’m driving.”
Demo: Virtual Reality
This one was probably more interesting for me, as VR is becoming a popular education tool. The simulation was quite surreal. After popping on the headset, I was suddenly transported to Barcelona, scooting along on a two-wheeler through narrow streets, amidst gorgeous views of the countryside. Then, a car pulls out and nearly knocks you on your rear. The idea is to put you in a position to anticipate danger before it happens, like a car pulling out of parking spot, for example, or a car door flung in your riding path. Certainly, the practice had all the makings of real-life riding experience, without the dismal outcome of an injury.
Demo: A Last-Second Lane Change
“The lane-change drill tested reaction time and vehicle control,” said my oldest boy Spencer. “You accelerate fast toward three red lights at the end of parking lot. Just before the single lane merges into three separate lanes, one of the lights turns green, leaving you one opportunity to swerve just in time to avoid an imaginary pile-up.
“Before, I probably would’ve hit the brakes at the sight of a highway pile-up,” Spencer told me later. “I hadn’t even thought about swerving into the nearest open lane to avoid hitting something in front of me or causing the car behind me to collide with my rear bumper. That was surprising.
“As was explained to me by my driving instructor, drills like this one save lives. Slamming on the brakes is no longer the only tool in my arsenal to defend me from a crash. Swerving, sometimes, is a much safer option. This is only one of the drills I got to participate in, but this alone made the day well worth it.”
Demo: Turning Out of a Spin
Maybe the most fun and most valuable of the bunch. Those who take part get an opportunity to test out a Mustang and learn the proper way to handle a spin with a professional in tow.
This is all done with a pro, of course, on a diminutive level in a controlled environment. Parents watch with the assurance that safety comes first. And best of all, the kids come away with a new appreciation for what machines can do. I asked my boys what they thought, and they obliged me by summarizing a few key takeaways.
Teaching young people about the dangers of driving generally boils down to a rather boring type of education, most of which gets summarized in graphs and dated public service videos. Somewhere along the way, people determined that the best way to deter young people from making poor decisions was to scare them into a state of paralysis. Personally, it’s a style that I believe is less effective than the alternative, which is enabling them to make smart decisions.
Our day with Ford proved that we don’t need to stick to the old models of education. Drivers Ed classes are important, but perhaps more so is the actual practice of driving and getting a taste of the real-time conditions that happen on roads and streets every day. I appreciated the Ford model for embracing those types of conditions and letting teens experience it for themselves—with trained professionals and driving instructors no less. It doesn’t get more practical than that.