On the distraction course run by Teen Driving Solutions, things start out simply enough.
The first time through, drivers wind their way through the course at any speed they like. All they have to do is stay within the cones and obey all the signs they see.
Then comes the counting, backward by threes from 100.
The drivers go through the same course, but this time they’re chanting – “100, 97, 94 …” – as they go.
Finally, the drivers are asked to take out their cellphones and send a text message. That’s when things get really messy.
“They’re just destroying cones at this point,” said Chuck Hawks, chief executive officer of the nonprofit driving school based in Raleigh.
The goal of the course is to show teens and their parents how much distractions affect their driving, part of an overall effort to make teens more responsible drivers. In 2010, seven teens ages 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries in the U.S., and motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teen Driving Solutions offers weekend-long classes for teens and their parents about how to drive safely. The emphasis isn’t on memorizing the rules of the road to pass a one-time test. Instead, instructors teach students about how a vehicle works, how to anticipate and avoid dangerous situations, and how much staying focused matters when driving. Students spend several hours in the classroom and 12 hours of in-car training.
Along the way, course instructors also explain how parents can keep from imparting bad habits to their teenagers and how to be an effective driving coach.
“It is not just the teen’s program. The parent goes through as much education,” Hawks said.
Ken Dockser, who lives in Cary, took the class with his oldest son after hearing it recommended by car enthusiasts at work. He liked that the class gave his son confidence about driving and also allowed him to brush up on emergency maneuvers.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said.
The classes take place at the Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Va., and draw students primarily from North Carolina and Virginia, though others have come from as far away as Texas, New York and Mississippi. The organization also offers a mobile driving clinic that can set up the distraction course anywhere.
Daniel Wagner, who lives in Raleigh, started the program in response to a series of accidents his nieces and nephews had once they started driving.
As a professional driver with decades of accident-free experience, Wagner wanted to get to the bottom of what was happening.
“For me to have members of my own family getting in crashes, that just doesn’t sit very well. And I said, ‘I have to do something about this,’ ” he said.
Wagner started writing a book but quickly realized he had a training program on his hands instead. Since the program started, 200 teenagers have completed the class, and only one has been in a subsequent accident.
Wagner said one of his top tips for drivers is to remember that every time they get behind the wheel of a car, they’re dealing with life or death issues, and to act accordingly.
“If we can help bring some of these kids home alive, I’ll be a happy man,” he said.