Driver's Seat: Driving courses keep teens on track

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It took steady nerves to stand in Rich Dunbar's sneakers on Saturday afternoon.

With each "go" signal he gave, a novice teenage driver and an instructor/passenger would race off past him, getting up to speed for a lane-change maneuver on an abandoned airstrip in eastern Pennsylvania.

Even after a car left, Mr. Dunbar wasn't alone. Eight or nine more cars were revving behind him, ready to tackle the course.

It's all part of a Saturday's activities for Mr. Dunbar, who is Tire Rack Street Survival coordinator and assistant regional executive for the Philadelphia Region of the Sports Car Club of America.

Terror in the passenger seat: Most of us aren't as unflappable around young drivers as Mr. Dunbar is.

Really, what phrase could inspire more awe in the hearts of mere mortals than, "I'm teaching my teens to drive?" With three kids in college, it wasn't that long ago that Mr. Driver's Seat was transformed into Mr. White-Knuckled Passenger Seat, Fake-Braking Dad.

For people who find themselves in a similar situation, the folks behind the Tire Rack Street Survival School are using April's status as National Distracted Driver Awareness Month to promote their national day-long, hands-on events for teaching teens not just to drive, but to really know their cars.

Daylong event: Bill Wade, driving expert and national program manager for Tire Rack Street Survival, said the events for newly licensed drivers and permit holders are split between class time and hands-on instruction time.

Mr. Wade said the hands-on instruction is most important. Students can hear all about controlling a car in a skid but "until your rear end actually feels the car start to step out on you, you don't know when to react."

Plenty of rear ends seemed to be feeling the car stepping out on Saturday. As cars hustled through the slalom, I heard skid marks being made and knew someone was pushing the lane-change event to the limit.

The program is run by the BMW Car Clubs of America, with online tire distributor Tire Rack acting as corporate sponsor. The Sports Car Club of America and Porsche Club are also sponsors.

The volunteers on Saturday are members of one club or the other, many of whom teach autocross and other sport driving events, so a day with novices is like a walk in the park -- or a ride in the park -- for them.

Who can go? Signups are not limited to members or Eurosport owners.

And, teens, certainly don't expect a Porsche or BMW awaiting you at the school; it's definitely BYOC: Bring Your Own Car. Mr. Wade said plenty of minivans, Mom-mobiles and teen beaters populate their programs.

I saw an old Porsche 911 on Saturday and a few nice Audis and other premium brands, but there also were a lot of older cars like Subarus, perfect for new drivers. "We don't want this to be a club-exclusive kind of thing," Mr. Wade said. "This program is designed for the general population."

All-inclusive: For the $75 admission fee, Street Survival offers a 20-page booklet that addresses safety principles and the physical properties of speed, grip and motion. Mr. Wade said the clubs provide plenty of food and snacks for teens and parents alike throughout the day.

Their website,, lists programs available this year.

The closest Street Survival location to Pittsburgh is at the Value City Department Store in Boardman, Ohio, on May 5. Another program is scheduled on June 22 at Sun Motor Cars BMW in Mechanicsburg, which may be doable for Westmoreland County and eastern readers.

The school operators also have a form for interested parents and teens to fill out to request a school in their region, so Pittsburghers may want to band together for this purpose.

Back at the event, Mr. Dunbar was getting ready to switch one group from the classroom to their cars while the first went inside for a bit of instruction.

Then he had to get things organized for the graduation ceremony, and have volunteers set up a special course for students' last event of the day.

"It's a lot of prep work," he said. "It's a jam-packed day."

I learned about this program after an earlier column on teen driving -- talking about the PTSD aspects has had a cathartic effect, and I've even been able to adjust my medications downward. There's even talk of my returning to a position as a fully functioning member of society.


Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at


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