By Sean Bowes
All around Pasco County, 16-year-old kids are buckling up, revving up their engines and weaving around cone courses to get better acquainted with their cars and better prepared for driving on Florida’s roads.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) is hosting the Florida Sheriff’s Association Teen Driver Challenge for the fourth year running. The program is used in 35 counties in Florida as a way to teach young drivers about the dangers of distracted driving, as well as how to handle their car in different situations that drivers face every day. At Wesley Chapel High, students from Land O’ Lakes, Wiregrass Ranch and other local high schools participated in the two-day program on July 19-20.
The Teen Driver program is a 12-hour course, which includes four hours of classroom time and eight hours of hands-on instruction on a driving course at no cost to students or parents.
The program’s first day is the four-hour class, and the next day, the teens hone their skills on a cone obstacle course. The parking lot looks like, for anyone with an automobile racing background, a makeshift autocross course for the drivers to steer their cars around the track without touching any of the orange cones.
“We have cones set up for different maneuvers,” said PCSO Corp. Jeremy Colhouer, the instructor for the Teen Driver Challenge, “We have a figure-8 for them to test the turning radius, a serpentine (slalom) course, threshold braking maneuver, and evasive maneuver section.”
The figure-8 portion of the course and the serpentine maneuvers portions of the course were among the favorites for students.
“The Figure-8 was scary,” said Courtney Wallace, a senior at Wiregrass Ranch High. According to Wallace, it was the hardest driving her P.T. Cruiser has seen with her at the wheel.
At an empty parking lot at Wesley Chapel High, a few tires squealed and a couple of cones were ultimately hit, but everyone seemed to have a good time. And, as if whipping your car around a parking lot in front of a group of sheriff’s deputies is not reason enough to participate, there are also other incentives. Pasco County students must take the four-hour classroom portion to be able to receive a parking permit for their high school. Some students also are rewarded with savings from their insurance companies. State Farm Insurance is the sponsor of the Teen Driver Challenge and any student who partakes in the program receives reduced insurance rates. Other insurance companies do the same.
“My insurance is going to be around $100 cheaper for every six months,” said one student who has a policy with Star and Shield.
The students also learned new skills that they had not tested, in the real world, or for their driver’s license exam, like parallel parking.
“I’ve never had to parallel park before,” said Laura Wang, 16, a senior at Wiregrass Ranch High, but on July 19 she got plenty of practice parking her late model sedan.
“These kids are doing a great job out there,” said Corp. Doug Theodore, another instructor for Teen Driver who helped Wang polish her parallel parking.
According to PCSO, car crashes are the leading cause of death and injury to teens in America. Florida teens are especially at risk, as our state reports the highest rate of crash involvement for drivers ages 15 – 19 years have the highest rate of fatal crashes and the second highest rate of alcohol-related crashes.
A few of the students said they feel that this program is better-rounded than the typical driver’s education classes where, they say, you don’t experience as much hands-on driving as you do during the Teen Drivers program. And you don’t use your own car in Driver’s Ed.
“We want students to be comfortable with their own cars,” said Corp. Colhouer “That’s which car they will be driving and they should know how to operate it, and how it will respond.”
On the first day of the program, the Pasco students, the majority of them girls, learned basic maintenance on each of their cars. According to Colhouer, they taught each of the students how to pop their hoods, check their tire pressure, the basics of changing a tire, and where each of the fluids are on their cars.
Note – As a reporter, my skepticism kicked in and I decided to put one of the young drivers to the test. I asked Amanda Lutter, 16, a cheerleader from Mitchell High in New Port Richey whose father signed her up for the program, to point out where the coolant was kept in her Honda Accord.
Lutter scoffed as if the task was too easy, popped and propped her hood, pointed to her radiator cap and then like a pro, also pointed out the radiator’s overflow canister, where additional coolant is kept. I was impressed.
The Florida Sheriffs Association’s Teen Driver Challenge first began in Leon County as a pilot program. The program was so successful, that, in 2007, the FSA board adopted the idea and developed an expert team of law enforcement officials and teen driving experts to introduce the program statewide. According to Corp. Colhouer, the physical cone course that the students use is not just for students, in fact, it is the same course that PCSO uses to test their own deputies and driving instructors.
The Teen Driver program aims to have a five-to-one teacher-to-student ratio. The three primary objectives of the Challenge are to reduce: the number of crashes for, the number of fatal crashes, and the number of DUI arrests and aggressive driving citations for teen drivers.
“If we save just one life, or teach them one new way to be safe, or prevent one accident, it is all worth it,” said Corp. Colhouer.
The next Teen Driver Challenge is Tuesday, August, 9 at Gulf High School, located at 5355 School Rd. in New Port Richey. The Challenge is open to any Pasco County student with a valid driver’s license and insurance. Visit FSATeenDriverChallenge.com for more information, or to enroll for no cost. More Teen Driver Challenge dates will be scheduled after school starts in August.