By Johnny Jackson
Fiona Schlumberger is one of about 1,000 teenagers and parents who will take part in the advanced driving skills program, Toyota Driving Expectations, over the next two weeks.
The Toyota-sponsored program is being held for the first time in metro Atlanta at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, now through Sunday and on April 18-20.
"It's pretty much exactly what my dad always tells me ... [but] from professional drivers," said Schlumberger, 15. "He's big on it. He took a defensive driving course when he was younger."
A freshman at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Ga., she has only been driving with her permit since January.
"I think I'll come away from this with more confidence," said Schlumberger, who described herself as somewhat of a fearful, and confused driver.
Teenagers like Schlumberger are involved in fatal traffic accidents at more than twice the rate of the rest of the population in the U.S., according to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration. Teens are also at far greater risk of death in an alcohol-related crash than the overall population, despite the fact they cannot legally purchase, or publicly possess alcohol in any state.
"We're here to save lives, basically, and educate parents and teens," said Greg Pene, lead driving instructor with Toyota Driving Expectations. "The parents are absolutely thrilled and in awe of the program. And the kids have a new respect for what their parents go through."
Pene added that prom and graduation season approaching, now is the optimal time for teenagers to learn to become safe, responsible drivers.
"It's dramatic," he said. "Unfortunately, there are way too many kids drinking and driving to prom and homecoming. The timing is absolutely perfect."
The program is free of charge and goes beyond what is taught in typical driver training classes by putting teens behind the wheel to face real-world scenarios under the supervision of professional drivers.
"Since the program's debut in 2004, Toyota Driving Expectations has touched the lives of more than 7,500 teens and parents, creating an open dialogue within families to develop and maintain safe driving habits," said Michael Rouse, Toyota's corporate manager of national philanthropy and community affairs.
Toyota Driving Expectations begins with an opening session where participants are introduced to the privilege and risk associated with driving. Participants also learn about the program's curriculum, which includes driving courses and classroom-style sessions.
Teens take part in three simulated driving courses that help teens: Practice how to best keep their eyes on the road; learn about how anti-lock braking systems work on both wet and dry roads at distances of 40, 60, and 100 feet; and experience how everyday distractions can have unexpected and hazardous effects.
The driving courses were an eye-opener to 16-year-old Lawrence Colyer, who says he is learning to be more focused when he is on the road.
Colyer, a sophomore at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Ga., has been driving a year with his permit and plans to get his license in May. He was invited to take part in the program by his mother Rosalyn Colyer.
"It's a good experience," he said. "I wouldn't be here if she hadn't asked me to come."
Parents also drive a distraction course so they can experience how reducing focus on the road poses potentially serious dangers.
Parent Jean Hetzel of Sandy Springs took part in a simulated driving course that gauges driver reaction to potential distractions.
"I think it's a great safe way to show how vulnerable you are," Hetzel said.
She admitted that she turned the car radio on when she should not have during the course - a mistake. She says, she is thankful to have experienced on a simulated course.
Hetzel signed her 16-year-old daughter up for the course earlier this year.
She says her daughter received her license in January and is a decent driver, but could benefit from the defensive driving course.
"Actually, I hope she does make mistakes so that she can learn from them here," Hetzel said.
Teens are required to attend the program with a parent or guardian in order to help teach teens about defensive, safe driving and parents how to become model drivers themselves.
The teens, and their parents, must develop a safe-driving contract together at the end of the program - a contract of practices to put in place at home - in order to reinforce what they may have learned in the program.
Twenty-eight program sessions will be held at the Speedway over the next two weekends - two four-hour sessions on Fridays between 1-6 p.m. and six four-hour sessions on Saturdays and Sundays, between 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Toyota Driving Expectations is booking free venues nationwide this spring and fall with upcoming programs to be held at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Mass., April 25-27 and Belmont Park Race Track in Elmont, N.Y., May 2-4. Registration is now open at the Toyota Driving Expectations Web site.
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