Hundreds of Triangle high school students are taking time out of their spring break this week to learn to be better drivers and to get behind the wheel of a sports car.
The Ford Driving Skills For Life event, running through Wednesday at PNC Arena, is teaching young and inexperienced drivers about the dangers of impaired and distracted driving, as well as how to handle hazardous conditions. But what’s especially compelling for some young drivers is the chance to take a six-cylinder Ford Mustang for sliding turns and sudden stops.
“Generally what you find is the parents are the ones who sign the teens up and force them to come out on spring break on a Tuesday morning at 8 o’clock,” said Nolan Katerberg, the manager for the program. “But what happens is they’ll get out here and realize it’s a fun course and they’ll have a good time.”
Sponsors of the event, which include the Ford Motor Company Fund and the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program, say the need to teach teens advanced driving skills is real. They point out that motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers in the U.S. In North Carolina, there were 61 teen-driver fatalities in 2015.
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Spots for the half-day sessions in Raleigh filled up as 400 students and their parents are expected to go through the free program. Many of the drivers are 15 or 16 and either have a learner’s permit or recently received a driver’s license.
“He’s just about to get his license so I thought this would be a great opportunity to do this before he drives alone,” said Cheryl Tapanes, a mother from Willow Springs. “I think everybody should have to do this.”
Tapanes watched as her son Eddie Iannetto, 16, a sophomore at Southern Wake Academy in Holly Springs, attempted to drive through an obstacle course while wearing goggles that simulate what it’s like to be impaired. A Raleigh police officer sat next to Iannetto and other drivers.
“I was nervous,” Iannetto said. “It’s the only time you can drive impaired with a cop in the front seat and not get arrested.”
The teens also simulated what it’s like walking when you’re drunk or drugged up by wearing special suits that simulate things such as blurred vision and hand tremors. Brittany Harris, 15, a sophomore attending Franklin Academy in Wake Forest, saw how hard it was Tuesday to even see, much less kick, a small cone while being suited up.
“Drunk driving is really serious,” Harris said. “You think it won’t affect you. But putting the goggles on, you realize how dizzy you are.”
Alyssa Wilson, 15, a sophomore at the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy in Raleigh, experienced how hard it was to drive while simultaneously trying to do things such as texting the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
“When you had to change the radio or people started talking to you, it got hard to drive,” Wilson said. “You don’t want to drive distracted.”
But the highlight Tuesday for a number of the students was the chance to drive a Ford Mustang. The sound of screeching tires echoed through the PNC Arena parking lot as drivers were taught how to steer out of a skid and to recognize when to suddenly change lanes and apply the brakes.
“It was cool,” said Ryan Mcauley, 16, a junior at Roxboro Christian Academy. “You don’t get to drive like that.”
Donna Coleman said she was glad she had brought her son, D.J. McClain, a sophomore at Fuquay-Varina High School. But she was also glad that it wasn’t her own vehicle that was receiving the punishing treatment.
“You can never have too many experiences like this,” Coleman said. “But you wouldn’t want to provide a learning experience like this in your own car.”