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Racers give teens keys to safe driving

Toledo Blade, Janet Romaker

Dozens of young drivers take part in free program

Adam Andretti, a race car driver and a nephew of star Mario Andretti, discusses road rage as students David Wood, center, of Holland and Robert Shaffer of Bowling Green pay attention. The star power of big names conducting the sessions was a big draw.

As 16-year-old Andrew Noble swerved his vehicle, squawked tires, and skidded across wet pavement, his mother nodded in approval.

"I made him come here. I think it's a good thing," said Ami Noble of Bowling Green, who noted that when it comes to driving, teen boys "think they know it all."

Ah, but they don't, and neither do teen girls, which was evident last week when dozens of area teenagers participated in a Honda teen defensive driving program, Key to Safe Teen Driving.

Presented by AAA Northwest Ohio, KeyBank, the Mid-Ohio School, Kumho Tires, and Owens Community College, the free two-day program was held at the college's Center for Emergency Preparedness' emergency vehicle operations and driving course along Tracy Road in Perrysburg Township, the first time for the program to be held at that location.

Mrs. Noble and several other parents said they were impressed with the program that offered first-hand experience and repetitive practice for the young drivers.

About 30 teens attended each of four separate sessions each day, taking part in classroom activities and in-the-vehicle drills involving wet braking, skid control, and emergency lane change.

Wet-braking and emergency lane change drills were conducted using each participant's street-legal automobile, but participants learned skid control while driving the program's Honda Civic Skid Car, under the direction of an instructor whose last name, Andretti, is synonymous with race cars and super fast speed. That alone was enough to ratchet up the program's coolness factor.

Race car driver Adam Andretti, nephew of Indy 500 winner Mario, controlled the specially equipped car, sending it slipping and sliding.

Behind the wheel were teenagers who had received instructions in how to handle skids, took turns practicing what they had learned in the classroom setting: look where you want to go (your hands will follow your eyes) and "when in doubt, both feet out," or, in other words, to avoid the big spin, let the car settle and keep your feet off the gas pedal, explained Dan Davis, public relations manager for KeyBank in Cleveland.

Mr. Davis, who grew up in North Baltimore, Ohio, said the program gives teenagers a chance to learn how to avoid a spinout while driving in a safe environment, rather than on a snowy road on the way to school.

Mostly, parents signed up their sons or daughters for the program.

"Most kids do not want to be here," Mr. Davis said, but parents want them to attend.

"It's awesome. Anything to keep the kids safe," said Joy Wozniak of Perrysburg, whose son, Devin, had "an excellent experience" during the class and driving sessions.

Her son, she said, has had his temps for eight months. She said the program showed him as well as the other novice drivers "what they don't know."

Some parents hoped that their teen drivers would pay closer attention to safe-driving tips when presented by race car drivers.

Mrs. Noble, for instance, said her son sometimes responds to her suggestions to improve his driving with a "whatever," but she said she doubted he would respond that same way while listening to Mr. Andretti.

As cars lined up to practice wet braking, Mark Dunn of Sylvania Township paid close attention to the green minivan driven by his daughter Sarah. He praised the program, calling it impressive.

Mr. Dunn enrolled her in the program to pump up her firsthand experience as a driver.

"She's going to be behind the wheel of a car, and I want her to be safe," Mr. Dunn said, adding that the lessons learned during the program "are not learned in driver's education. Teens need to know how to handle these situations. They have less than a second to respond."

Zoe Foster, 17, of Whitehouse slams on her brakes during the 'wet brake' exercise. The teenagers used a special Skid Car to learn how to control skids.

His 13-year-old son, Aaron (soon to turn 14), watched his sister take her turn across the wet pavement, and seemed a tad disappointed that Sarah wasn't skidding about a bit.

"She is kind of braking before the water. I have not seen too much so far," he said.

Sarah, knowing she was being watched by her family, said she didn't want to brake too hard in the water.

Mr. Dunn said that he was impressed that the wet-braking instruction was presented by Cole Carter, Pancho Carter's son.

"I watched his dad race. All of the instructors are professional racing guys. It is neat, all really neat."

So neat, and so helpful in improving driver safety, that Mr. Dunn signed up his 18-year-old daughter, Rachel, an Owens student, for a training session the following day.

Program instruction included the physics and dynamics of driving, defensive driving and responsible behavior, wet-braking, emergency lane changes and collision-avoidance, slalom and weight-transfer maneuvers, and adverse weather conditions.

The class was taught by professional driving instructors from the Mid-Ohio School, which has offered performance driving and defensive driving programs for adults and teenagers since 1993.

The Key to Safe Teen Driving class was established in 2009 by KeyBank, with the overall goal of improving the driving skills of teen drivers and raising awareness about the need for better training of young drivers. This year's program features 14 events in 11 communities throughout Ohio and Indiana.

Mr. Davis, with KeyBank, said the program was designed to improve driving skills of teen drivers and to raise awareness about the need for better training for young drivers who can hit the road after 50 hours of "coaching," compared to an average of 1,500 hours of coaching for the average high school soccer player (who has played from an early age).

Teens were told to avoid distractions while driving.

"Put the cell phone away, don't load up the car with your friends," said Mr. Davis. He added that teens need to make good decisions whether they are behind the wheel or in the passenger seat. As passengers, teens shouldn't distract the driver with "look what Kimmie just sent me" sort of stuff, Mr. Davis said.

Jason Bury, 19, of Sylvania, said he signed himself up in large part because it was free. "You can't really argue with the price." By midsession, he had learned something important: that his car does not have an anti-locking brake system. "That's major, knowing that."

Sam Taylor, 15, of Whitehouse, who got his temps a month ago, said he kind of suggested signing up for the program because "it sounded like fun. It's interesting."

Drivers paid close attention during instructions for the Skid Car, and as he awaited his turn, Andrew Noble said so far, the program had presented challenges that were easier than they looked. "I don't think it's been too hard," he said, but within ear shot of his mother, he said, "It's good to get the experience you not normally would get."

As the Skid Car stopped and he prepared to take the wheel, he said, "I'm just going to gun it." Mrs. Noble, without missing a Mom moment, said "No, you're not."
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