Photo by Heather Middleton
By Valerie Baldowski
Six students, each behind the wheel of their respective family vehicles, whizzed back and forth between orange safety cones set up in an empty parking lot at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS).
Then, the young drivers gunned their engines, hurtling down a makeshift course toward their instructor, who was standing a few feet behind a wall of cones. The instructor signaled to the students when to stop abruptly, and they slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the cones, or the accident-prevention teacher.
Some of the students did not stop in time, or turn hard enough, and plowed into the cones separating the drivers from their teacher. It was all a part of a recent four-hour session of a longer Accident Avoidance Workshop, taught by professional driving instructor, Jeffrey "Homer" Stillwell.
The program allows student-drivers and their parents to gain hands-on experience, to prepare for dealing with real-life, on-road emergencies. Stillwell said his company, Marietta-based Stillwell Racing Enterprises, the parent company of Accident Avoidance Workshops, has taught the programs to area students for several years.
"The research began back in 1994," he said. "We began doing research on what was going to be a classroom session, and in 1995, we announced we were going to have a teen driving program in 2005."
Stillwell said teaching the seminar is the job of his dreams. "At the end of the day, when we walk around and pick up cones, to sit there and look and say, 'We may have saved a life this weekend,' how much more fulfilling can you get than that?" he asked.
The on-course, driving practice followed a three-hour classroom session, held earlier in the AMS Tara Ballroom. After completing the full workshop, each student received a certificate of completion, and a congratulatory round of applause from the other pupils and their parents.
Cullen Wilkerson, 16, a junior at Paideia School in Atlanta, made several attempts before learning to stop safely without hitting the cones. When he finally succeeded, he got out of his vehicle and took a bow, to the appreciative honking and cheering of the other students.
Wilkerson said the course should be a requirement for all students. "I liked it. I think it should be necessary for drivers," he said, after receiving his certificate. "Initially, I took it because my parents signed me up for it, but part of it was, I'm not getting a car until I take this. It ended up being a lot more than I thought it would be."
Wilkerson said some of the lessons he learned from the workshop were, how difficult it can be to avoid an accident, and what to do when involved in one. "It will just happen out of nowhere, and you have to be ready for it," he added.
Taylor Harris, 15, a sophomore at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School in Fayetteville, braked hard and cleanly stopped her vehicle a few feet in front of Stillwell, on her first try.
Harris said young drivers should be prepared to deal with emergencies whenever they arise.
"Some of these things, they happen, you're not expecting them, and you can't be on the [cell] phone and stuff," she said. "You have to have your full attention on the road, and on what you're doing." She emphasized the importance for teens to adhere to driving-safety rules.
"Some of the kids try to show off ..." she added. "I learned a lot from this. I know I still have a lot more to learn, but you take a lot away."
Stillwell affectionately gave Mario Lund, 15, who is also a sophomore at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School, the nickname "Mario Andretti." Lund struggled some while practicing the accident-avoidance techniques, but managed to get his certificate of completion with the other students. He admitted that he learned some sobering information about his skills behind the wheel. "I'm not a good driver, I learned that," said Lund. "I'm doing this, and I've passed Driver's Education and everything I needed when I turned 16, but I see, now, that I'm not ready to drive yet."
He said he initially resisted taking the workshop, but now sees it as a learning tool for improving his driving skills. "I fought taking this a lot, but now, it was fun, I'm learning stuff, it's not boring," Lund added. "This is cool."
Stillwell said his seminars, which teach teens how to handle their vehicles in all situations, are different from standard driver's education classes. "There's two different types of driving conditions: There's normal driving conditions and emergency driving conditions," said the instructor. "Emergency driving conditions is when everything goes horribly wrong in front of you. Can you handle the full-braking and the full-steering of your vehicle?
"Normal driving conditions is what they cover in driver's ed, what do the lines mean, what do the signs mean, how do you operate the vehicle?" continued Stillwell. "I teach what to do when everything goes horribly wrong, because that's where we're losing kids. They're not losing their kids parallel parking, they're losing their kids when somebody pulls out in front of them, or when they drop two wheels off the side of the road."
Normally, he said, the workshops are taught by two instructors at various metro Atlanta schools every other weekend, weather permitting. The workshop at AMS capped off a special end-of-the-year class. "It's kind of a celebration," Stillwell said. When you're [doing] a season-ender, we just like to have everybody down here ... It's like Christmas bonus time. We celebrate a safe year."