The leading cause of fatalities among young adults ages 16 to 24 is not guns or drugs or suicide. It’s car crashes. Let that sink in for a minute. Most of us would never turn our 16-year-old sons or daughters loose on the world with a firearm or a kit bag full of barbiturates, but we let them drive cars on busy roads and freeways with just a modicum of training and practice.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and you and your local NASA region can help by setting up a Car Control Clinic, and turning teens — and adults — into better drivers. Here’s the best part. Your volunteer instructors will enjoy the experience just as much if not more than the students.
NASA SoCal racer Roman Vaisman decided he wanted to put together a driving clinic in his area, so he called Scott Smith, who heads up the Car Control Clinic at the NASA national office in Napa Valley, Calif. The team of volunteers Vaisman assembled held their first clinic on Sept. 21.
“I knew some people who went through a similar clinic, and they really liked it and the feedback was great,” Vaisman said. “It really helped them with their driving and being aware on the road, so I was thinking about ways to bring it to Southern California.”
Vaisman solicited help from the Oxnard Noontimers Lions Club chapter he belongs to and sourced the rest of the volunteers from the NASA SoCal region and set about putting the event together. Vaisman brought in some local sponsors to help fund the first event, which had less than 10 students.
That’s not very many, but it was more than the Rocky Mountain Region attracted to its first event. They got one student to register. Regional Director Dave Balingit wanted to cancel the event, but Smith told him not to so he could use that first clinic to train the volunteers.
“He called me back and said they’d never had so much fun doing something and thanked me for making him do it,” Smith said. “And that’s the thing. For the first one, your expectations are going to be high because you hear stories from my region where we’re getting 50 students at a time. But that’s after years of doing this. I think I had six kids at our very first event. It just grows because word of mouth starts taking over, and people start talking about how great the program is. Right now I’ve got registered for my November event, which is on Black Friday, two people who are the third kids from their family to come through our program. Does it work? You better believe it.”
The first thing you need is a place to hold the event. A paddock in a racetrack is often large enough to do the trick. Large parking lots also are good places. NASA NorCal held a clinic in the parking lot of a local community college. NASA Northeast held one in the Meadowlands parking lot. Vaisman was able to rent a portion of a local airstrip, which worked great. Save for a few planes descending overhead, they had the place all to themselves, with lots of room to set up the drills.
“The biggest thing is to make sure you have enough room and clear space so you don’t have each of the stations overlapping each other,” Smith said. “Make sure your safety zone is quite large. Most racing facilities have enough paddock space that can be used. Some fairgrounds have large parking lots, so there’s a lot of places where you can do these events.”
Next, you need insurance for the event, which is $554. So, insurance, facility rental and lunches for your volunteers represent all your expenses. Oh, and you’ll also need orange traffic cones, at least a hundred of them.
”The insurance is provided through NASA and they have great coverage. It covered all the aspects of the clinic,” Vaisman said. “The airport had very high limits, and the insurance that NASA was able to provide was even higher than that.”
Vaisman was a little hesitant to stage his first event by himself, so he shouldered the costs of bringing Scott Smith down from Northern California to show him how to run a Car Control Clinic. Smith had the drill stations set up in about an hour, and when the students arrived at 9 a.m., everything was ready to go.
“If they want me to come out and hold their hands and show them how to set up the meetings and how to set up the courses, and stuff like that, I’m more than happy to,” Smith said. “It’s pretty simple and the whole point of the exercise is to give kids hands-on experience in a controlled environment.”
It’s important to note that the NASA Car Control Clinic is a nonprofit corporation. Smith donates all of his time freely to the program, which he has developed over the last 10 years.
The drills are rudimentary to anyone with a competition license or any seat time in HPDE, but they are truly eye-opening to the people who take the course. Activities include a brief tech walk-around of the car in the morning, then progressing to the driving drills. Depending on the facility’s accommodations, there’s a skid pad exercise, a reverse slalom, backing skills, braking exercises, hazard avoidance, parallel parking and highway driving.
At the Southern California event, students ran through parallel parking, reverse slalom, an ABS drill, split-decision lane changes and a slalom course with a figure eight. The ABS drill comes before the split-decision exercise, so students can feel what a car does when the antilock brakes kick in. The object is for them to understand what ABS feels like underneath their foot. When the car starts shaking, your first response is to take your foot off the pedal because you think you’re breaking the car. In reality, they need to keep your foot on the pedal.
“What’s interesting about the split-decision drill, it’s actually the same one that many of the police and law enforcement agencies train with, but what we’ve done is actually shorten up the distance in which they’re allowed to make their reaction so that the failure rate is intentionally high,” Smith said. “We want them to see right off the bat that they can’t be driving as fast as they think they should be able to. The logic is that a traffic cone is $3 and easily replaced, whereas someone’s life or their baby or their pet is not so easily replaced.”
A couple of aspects of the clinic make it especially appealing to students. First, they are in the car with no parent glowering over them. Second, the clinic is 90 percent hands on. They learn by doing rather than having to sit through lectures. Over the years, Smith has found these two elements help make event more fun. It also helps the students understand better.
“Kids process information a lot differently than we as adults do,” Smith said. “We as adults can take two different types of input, and in the case of driving it would be the physical input of what you’re learning from the car and the auditory input from someone in the passenger seat telling you what you should be doing. As an adult, we’re able to process that.
“Many of the young people aren’t able to process two different types of input and coming to an accurate conclusion,” he continued.
As an instructor or station leader, you will see the improvement in the students. At the beginning of the day, students approaches ranged from false bravado, mowing over cones and running wide on the figure eight course, to abject timidity, tip-toeing around the course slowly and carefully. By the end of the day, you will see the increase in car control. The car goes where they want it to go accurately and consistently rather than understeering wildly off course.
“The exciting thing is to see the kids faces at the end of an event or during an event when they finally grasp what we’re teaching,” Smith said. “I call it the great “aha moment.” That’s the exciting part as a volunteer.”
And that’s what hooks volunteers. It’s the payoff for them. Smith said he has a group of about 50 people he can rely on to show up at an event, no matter what day or location.
One neat thing you can do with event while it’s still small, is to put the teens’ parents in the driver seat and their children in the passenger seat to try to teach them what they just learned. When you get up around 20 or so students, there’s just not enough time to do that, but the practice reinforces the lessons because they take the skills they just learned physically and put them into an auditory training portion for their parents.
“It’s interesting to watch the parents who think they know what they’re doing, especially when it comes to the ABS or split decision drill, and see them go flying through the cones with their kids yelling at them,” Smith said. “It instills in the parents too, another aspect of the training, for example, what ABS feels like under their foot and how fast is too fast.”
When the event is over, and kids are filling out surveys, you can begin handing out certificates of completion. The certificates aren’t suitable for framing, but students can take them to their insurance agents, where Smith has reported premium discounts of up to 30 percent. Parents eyes get wide when they hear that.
“Once you sit in front of the insurance agent and they see the enthusiasm and they see what our program is with a brochure,” Smith said, “All of the sudden they’re willing to look a little closer at offering a discount.”
Smith added that you also can invite local or state police to provide cones and give presentations, and that the Car Control Clinic can spark interest in NASA’s HPDE program held during race weekends.
“I had a girl come through the program and she was so excited about it, she told her dad she wanted to do HPDE, and both she and her dad signed up for HPDE,” Smith said. “And now she wants to work toward her comp license she’s having so much fun.”
In this video, a student progresses through the panic-stop drill. You can see through each of the attempts she gains more speed and confidence to end the drill by just tapping the cone in the center.