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Sunday, April 14, 2013
One way you can judge the fabric of a community is the willingness of its residents to recognize a problem and work together to try to solve it.
There’s no shortage of such examples in the Roanoke Valley. The latest comes from the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Porsche Club of America.
The issue is a life-and-death one that concerns teen drivers. Specifically, it’s that too many lack skills necessary to handle emergency situations on the road. This was on tragic display last fall, when six teenage drivers in the Roanoke region died in a series of traffic crashes over a three-month period.
The problem isn’t merely a local one, however. Nationally, in the first six months of 2012, fatalities of teen drivers who were 16 and 17 increased 19 percent after ticking downward over the previous decade.
So members of the Porsche club asked themselves, “What can we do?” The answer was a daylong class, aimed at drivers aged 16 to 18, that will debut locally May 4 at the Salem Civic Center . They’re putting a lot of volunteer hours and effort into it. Some local police agencies, doctors and Salem officials are participating.
Today, “kids are driving more powerful cars, and the education they receive in schools is not ‘real-world’ education,” said Bill Hume, a Roanoke architect and a high-performance driving instructor for the club. So that’s what they’re offering — some real-world road skills.
Sponsored by online retailer TireRack.com, the class is called Street Survival Teen Driving.
The 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. course is evenly divided between classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction. The club is charging students $75 per head but will refund that advance registration fee to each teen who completes the course.
“We made the decision for this event to refund the money. We didn’t want any kids not to be able to do this because mom and dad can’t afford the $75,” Hume said.
In the classroom, police officers will describe grisly sights they see at crash scenes. Emergency room doctors will recount efforts they’ve made to save the lives of crash victims.
The teens will be drilled on the dangers of texting and making phone calls while driving, the necessity of wearing seat belts and the importance of never driving under the influence.
All of that classroom stuff is theoretical. But the students will also spend half their time in the driver’s seat of their own cars, with an instructor sitting beside them, practicing different scenarios that simulate on-the-road emergencies.
They’ll navigate zigzag patterns to get a better understanding of how their cars respond to such maneuvers. They’ll be taught what happens when they make a hard and sudden turn to avoid a wreck, and how their car responds when they slam on the brakes while driving in a straight line.
One part of the course, known as a “wet skid pad” will simulate rear-end fishtailing in snow or heavy rain.
An 18-wheeler donated for the day by Advance Auto Parts will be on hand. The pupils will sit in its driver’s seat to get a keen sense of exactly what a truck driver can and cannot see of surrounding cars on the highway. That’s a great way to teach newbies about the importance of giving those behemoths a wide berth.
Probably the most important exercise they’ll undertake is known as “two wheels off.” That happens when the passenger-side tires of a car go off a road’s right lip and into gravel. It’s most frequently a problem on curvy, two-lane rural roads.
Inexperienced drivers tend to jerk the steering wheel to the left to get those tires back on the road. This is the worst possible reaction — it tends to send the car flying into the opposite lane. The teens will get training on how to deal with that.
“That’s the number one accident,” Hume said. “That’s where most of the deaths occur.”
There’s room for 45 students in the May 4 class. If it’s oversubscribed, as the club expects, they’ll hold more classes in the future.
Hume said the longer-range goal is to hold a class every other month.
Two of the students in the first class will be Jessy and Jon Wilson of Roanoke County. The brother and sister are 16 and 17, respectively. Jessy obtained her license Friday, said her dad, Marc Wilson. He’s a member of the Porsche club.
“Accidents almost always stem from a lack of experience,” Marc Wilson told me. “When kids are faced with having to make an emergency maneuver, they don’t know what to do because they haven’t had that experience. This school will provide that opportunity in a safe and controlled environment.”
We’ll never know, of course, how many lives are saved, if any, as a result of this program. Unfortunately, it’s news when people die, or when a train wrecks. You never hear about those trains that make it to station safely and on time, or the teen drivers who make it home.
But imagine if just one teenager who takes that course is walking around a few years from now because of the skills he or she learned in it.
Wouldn’t that be worth all the effort the club’s putting forth?
Salem is donating classroom and driving space. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, along with Roanoke and Roanoke County police departments and area doctors, will be there.
Hume said every member of the Porsche Club will be pitching in, along with members from the Sports Car Club of America and other clubs geared toward Volkswagens and Corvettes.
They’re offering a chance to save lives and avoid heartbreaking tragedy.
Bravo to them all.
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