The Car Control Program: Providing Skills and Training to School and Municipal Drivers

By Sandy Stevens

Two officers responding to the same call arrive at the same intersection from different directions at the same time. A crash seems inevitable, even to them. The crash never happens.

The town assessor is downtown on a rainy Saturday morning with her husband, who drives a truck. She backs the Yukon into the parallel parking spot right in front of the store.

A town employee in his early 20s finds a deer in his low beams on a back road. He misses the deer, stays on the road and takes a quiet moment for himself before moving on.v

What do these drivers have in common? They are among the 1,800 drivers who have taken the Car Control Program—an all-day, hands-on driver training program complimentary to New Hampshire Local Government Center’s Property-Liability Trust and Workers’ Compensation Program members and offered in partnership with Stevens Advanced Driver Training.

Rules Have Changed

On March 22, 2010, we begin the fourth year of offering Car Control Program training with LGC, and our 31st year of providing emergency skills training to police officers, emergency vehicle drivers, municipal employees and new drivers in New England.

It is fair to ask: Do experienced drivers who have good safety habits and good records stand to gain from a training like this? The short answer is: Yes, because the driving rules changed when we weren’t looking. Here’s how.

Those of us of a certain age learned how to drive on cars that didn’t have anti-lock brakes. In normal driving situations, that doesn’t matter too much because the average driver rarely puts the brakes on hard enough to feel the telltale vibration in the brake pedal during a hard stop. In the winter, that vibration is often felt when the car is sliding on ice.

There is no friction for the anti-lock braking system (ABS) system to work with, leaving many drivers uncertain of the system’s value or purpose.

The reality is that the risk to the experienced driver from not understanding ABS is twofold. First, pumping the brakes in an ABS car increases stopping distance; so what used to be the right thing is now the wrong thing. Second, years ago we learned to gradually apply brake pedal pressure because slamming on the brakes would lock the wheels and the driver would lose steering control. Now, slamming on the brakes is the right thing to do. The ABS won’t allow the brakes to lock, so the steering works fine. In fact, the steering works much better, because all the weight from the braking is pushing the front wheels into the road harder, so there’s more grip for both braking and steering.

Building Survival Instincts

OK, so now you get it. Why take a Car Control Program training course? Because understanding the rules change and going against lifetime habits to drive the right way without practicing at highway speeds are two very different things. It’s our job to provide you with a safe, controlled situation that has everything you need to build survival instincts compatible with the safety technology of today’s cars. Plus, we cover a few other things. Let me walk you through a typical Car Control Program training day and you’ll see what I mean.

The class convenes at LGC at 8:30 a.m. and, by 8:45 a.m., a registered group of 15 participants arrives at our 44 Regional Drive training site located on the back side of Concord Airport. Our classroom and the continental breakfast buffet are held in a hangar adjacent to the vacant taxiway now used for driving. At 9 a.m., there is a brief orientation and first part of an informative slide presentation we return to between drills and when driving courses are being reset. Mostly, we’re outside with the cars.

Braking and Backing

First, the instructors take a few minutes to talk about hand and seating positions. I know it sounds like a no-brainer, but remember that what we’re preparing for is handling the car in a 60 m.p.h. evasive maneuver. If you’re not in the seat and on the wheel in a way that works when the deer shows up in the headlights, you’ll never get to your destination in time. The good news is that there is a comfortable way of sitting in the car all the time that puts you in a position to succeed when you are challenged a few times in your life.

Next, there is a brief anti-lock brakes demonstration and explanation. The ABS is a big part of what we teach, and it is important for everyone to understand the technology.

Now it’s time to get in the cars for the straight-line braking drill. When we do the highway-speed evasive maneuver in the afternoon, we’ll be combining ABS braking skills with steering skills. To get ready for that, we do just the braking first, then just the steering. The braking drill involves coming to a full stop from 50 m.p.h. in about 90 feet. There are four cars and four instructors, so it doesn’t take long for your turn to come around. Before you drive, the instructors take everyone for a ride while performing the drill and carefully explain what we are looking for. Then, when it is your turn, the instructor sits in the front passenger seat and you drive with nobody in the back. Usually after four times through the drill, with speeds gradually increasing to 50 m.p.h., you’re able to engage the ABS for the full length of the stop and have room to spare before reaching a barrier of orange cones.

The slalom is next. I’ve been doing this drill for 35 years and have never seen another drill as effective as this for teaching the timing of these two moves that it takes to miss the moose: the initial, evasive roll of the wheel followed (quicker than you would think!) by the counter-steer to stay on the road. It’s only a line of five cones 60 feet apart with a top speed of 35 m.p.h., but we spend a long time on it, because the basic skills that result are central to success in the rest of the things we do.

By now it’s about 11 a.m., and we’re going to slow things down for the backing and close-quarters maneuvering drills. While not as dramatic, if you’re talking budget, these are a big deal. Half the money spent on repairs is spent on low-speed incidents that didn’t have to happen. And, most of them fit under the deductible, so they cost real dollars that could be spent on things you need.

The program changes a little depending on who’s there that day; we don’t expect police, for instance, to back up trucks with mirrors. A catered lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to noon in the middle of the backing-up hour.

Changing Lanes and Cornering

Now we’re ready for the lane change, which combines elements of the braking and steering drills, and adds the element of surprise. The idea is to get as close to the reaction time available in a true highway-speed emergency and practice simultaneous, evasive steering and braking under those conditions. It sounds and looks intimidating since it is a true highway-speed drill, but there are two things to remember. First, we all drive 60 m.p.h. regularly, so preparing to handle an emergency at that speed is a good idea. We don’t want to be practicing on real accidents. Second, the lane change is simple. Any driver can do it. If it wasn’t simple, it wouldn’t be effective as an emergency procedure. And, the confidence you take away from the drill is well worth the effort of learning it.

Cornering is a drill that has something for everyone, but, unlike the lane change, not everyone takes away the same skills or message. We have a diverse group of participants in this program—from police officers to town administrators and bus drivers. For the police, understanding the safest, most efficient path through the corner is only half of what they need. Controlling the car at higher speeds is also part of their jobs, so we work on that. For others, just understanding how to choose a safe path through a turn can make that trip down the mountain in the rain safer and easier.

Finally, we tackle the tailgating drill. We save this for last, because there’s a message and we want it to be fresh: most people tailgate, and learning not to tailgate means learning to make decisions that are not the ones everyone else is making. That takes information and motivation. The tailgating drill provides both.

And that’s it. We finish up between 3 and 4 p.m., hand out certificates and say good-bye.

New Driver Program

A study commissioned by the Vermont Youth Safety Council and conducted by the Vermont Justice Research Center showed that the new drivers we trained had half the number of crashes as their untrained peers in the three years after licensure. (For more study data, visit our website) That’s why we also offer a four-hour program for new drivers. The program consists of the braking, steering, lane change and tailgating drills from our Car Control Program training as well as brief, topical discussions throughout the day. Parents (at least one) are strongly encouraged to accompany teen drivers to the program.

This program is eligible for reimbursement through the LGC HealthTrust’s Health Awareness Program. This year, the Health Awareness Program offers reimbursements of up to $300 per calendar year to LGC HealthTrust medically covered members (subscribers, spouses and retirees) following completion of the 2010 Get Healthy Personal Health Analysis (PHA) Questionnaire. Children also qualify for Health Awareness Program reimbursements if the covered parent employed by an LGC HealthTrust member group completes a PHA.

At Stevens, we’re committed to being the leader in safe, hands-on emergency car control training and are pleased to continue our partnership with LGC to help you and your employees create a safe driving culture at a community level. We look forward to seeing you in a Car Control Program training this year.

Sandy Stevens is founder and owner of Stevens Advanced Driver Training, which was founded in 1979 and operates training locations in North Andover, Ayer, and Westfield, Massachusetts and Concord, New Hampshire. It partners with the LGC’s Property-Liability Trust and Workers’ Compensation Program to offer the Car Control Program. To register for Car Control trainings or obtain more information, please contact LGC Risk and Health Associate Lea McLaughlin by e-mailing lmcglaughlin@nhlgc.org or calling 800.852.3358, ext. 337.