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Road Tested

A dose of high speeds, quick stops, and other driving dangers gives teens a challenging reality check that could save lives

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / March 26, 2009
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NORTH ANDOVER - The silver Toyota Camry tears across the pavement, whirring through puddles and slush, engine racing. Rock music screams from the radio. Passengers jabber.

Suddenly, danger: A vehicle stops abruptly ahead. The ponytailed teen driving the Toyota slams on the brake, and the car hurtles to a stop.

But not quickly enough.

Technically, the teen and all three of her passengers should be seriously injured - possibly even dead. Luckily, though, this wasn't in real traffic. Instead, Kaitlyn Barney of Ipswich, a newcomer behind the wheel, was getting what you might call a "crash course" in the short-sightedness (quite literally) in tailgating.

"Unless it's an emergency, we'd never be put in this sort of situation," the 17-year-old said after the drill recently, standing at the edge of a slick, empty parking lot under cloudy skies in North Andover. "We wouldn't know what to do."

Just don't call it driver's ed. This drill is intense: braking at highway speeds, slaloming around obstacles, and regulating tailgating. Offered through Wilmington-based In Control Advanced Driver Training and a scattering of other companies across New England, such courses introduce new licensees to the two-lane blacktop as it is, beyond the "student driver"-emblazoned car: raw, chaotic, and, sometimes, a battlefield.

In a one-day, typically five-hour session, students go through various adrenaline-pumping drills interwoven with short periods of classroom instruction. Whirring along at 45 to 55 miles an hour on a tarmac with race drivers as their instructors, they familiarize themselves with antilock brakes, emergency stops, lane changing, swerving, and speed regulation.

"Driver's ed is self-explanatory," Matt Montanari said after slaloming through cones a half-dozen times at speeds ranging from 20 to 37 miles an hour on a recent Saturday afternoon In Control session.

A tag scrawled in black ink identified the Wenham 16-year-old as fellow drivers will encounter him on the road: "Matt/Lexus 300 RX."

"You sit in a classroom, and it's like, 'Make sure you stop at stop signs,' " Montanari said. "This is really doing it."

It's an enthusiasm shared by others: Given the tightened restrictions on young drivers statewide, as well as periodic pushes to increase the driving age across the country, courses that provide real-road experience are applauded and backed by the state, insurance companies, and, perhaps most of all, parents.

Yet, while there are 244 regular driving schools in Massachusetts, there are just three advanced driver training programs certified by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles: In Control, training at locations in North Andover, Worcester, and Cape Cod; Driven School of Advanced Driver Training in Adams; and Stevens Advanced Driver Training in Bedford, N.H.

"I think they should be mandatory," said Marc Montanari, Matt's father, watching as cars raced on an In Control course at the 1600 Osgood St. factory site in North Andover.

For now, discounts serve as an incentive. The courses cost about $300 (mandatory driver training costs $500 to $700), but graduates can often get 10 percent or more shaved off their insurance premiums.

"It reduces losses, claims, accidents - it reduces the overall cost for everybody," said Bill Fabri, chief operating officer with Appleby & Wyman Insurance Agency in Westford.

All told, car crashes are the leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Putting a local perspective to the dangers: Eighteen percent of drivers ages 16 to 19 were involved in crashes in 2006 in Massachusetts, according to RMV statistics. That same year, 27 drivers ages 16 and 17 died in crashes; another 12 in that age bracket died on the roads in 2007.

For many parents then, the realization that their coming-of-age teens will soon be battling it out on the roadways typically conjures one emotion: terror.

"The first couple times she took off, you realize: It's dangerous," said Karen Barney, Kaitlyn's mom, describing most drivers as "selfish."

"A car is a weapon," agreed Julie Perry of Ipswich, whose 16 1/2-year-old daughter, Kayla, also devoted a recent Saturday to jerk stops, tailgating, and skids. "They kind of have this idea of 'I have my license, let's go!' "

Out on the quarter-mile-long course nearby, engines raced back and forth, brakes grated, tires splashed through puddles.

Fifteen teenage students - name tags identifying them as "Scott Civic" or "Julian Volvo XC90" - rotated at the wheel of four 2009 Toyota Camrys.

Their drill: tailgating.

Senior instructor (and formula car race driver) Don Costa, at the lead, towed an orange cone on a 45-foot length of rope - essentially, an imaginary tailgater. The length of the tow line also represented drivers' half-second reaction time.

Students operated two cars behind and set off to the side (to prevent a real accident); their mission was to keep pace with the cone tugged by Costa and brake to a stop when he did.

Based on where their car ultimately ended up in relation to Costa's, the teens were graded on a sobering system: A stop in line with the cone was a "fendah bendah"; between Costa's bumper and the cone, an "ambulance ride"; and anything past that a "hearse ride."

It was Kaitlyn Barney's turn; she climbed into one of the silver cars, adjusted her seat and mirrors, and positioned her hands at 10 and 2.

The three Camrys then lined up at the left side of the long, narrow course.

Costa's voice crackled over a walkie-talkie tucked into the dash: "When I say go, put that gas pedal right to the floor and don't let up."

Then: "3, 2, 1 . . . Go!"

All three drivers gunned it. Costa motored to 55. The two cars behind roared across the pavement in pursuit.

Then, without warning, Costa jammed his car to a halt.

Kaitlyn reared back and stomped on the brake. The car skidded, squealed, and stopped about three car lengths beyond Costa's - what would be considered a "hearse ride."

"I think we're dead," Kaitlyn observed.

"Way dead," added Kayla Perry, from the back seat.

"I killed, like, five cars ahead of me," Kaitlyn said, shaking her head.

It was a grim lesson, the teen noted later - especially since most of her fellow students also ended the exercise with a "hearse ride" or an "ambulance ride."

"Clearly, I have no reaction time," she laughed, then added seriously, "You don't tend to think when you're going too fast."

Snap decision making is essential, she said, as is paying full attention to the road. (She admitted to being "guilty" of texting while driving in real life, and said she planned to stop.)

Kayla, meanwhile, offered simple advice to her fellow newbie drivers: "Make smart decisions."

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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