SURVEYOR'S NOTEBOOK

The Bigger Idea Behind Street Survival

By Rik van Hemmen

As American parents, my wife and I went through the usual terrors of teaching the offspring to drive.

Once we were reasonably sure our youngest could drive on her own, she asked us if we would pay for her Street Survival class. We had never heard of this program, and this is a shame, because it turned out it is one of the greatest training programs I have ever seen.

Street Survival was the brain child of sports car enthusiast in the US who realized that, because young drivers never had driven their car at the performance edge, they were bound to fail if they found themselves at a performance edge emergency.  (Think of a young driver flipping the car while trying to avoid a deer crossing the road.)

With support of a number of automotive supply companies, these sports car enthusiasts developed a one day program that they run themselves. For very little money ($95), young drivers will be exposed to an effective and fun learing experience that can truly save their lives, but, besides that, the program also provides useful training ideas for other training programs, including maritime.

The approach is simple. Find a street survival class nearby, give your kid the daily driver, and with an instructor sitting next to her, really push the car to the edge of its envelope so she can learn what to do in such situations.

The risk of harm to the students is extremely low because all the exercises take place in a large empty parking lot and the “road” and “obstacles” are represented by lightweight traffic cones. (To prevent roll overs high center of gravity cars cannot enter the program, but typical SUV’s and CUTE’s, compact UTE’s, with dynamic vehicle control are allowed to be run.)

The exercises included full force braking from maximum acceleration, to figure eight transition, to high speed lane switch, to soaped up surface circular skid pad control.

From the outset there is a strict rule that cone contact is a fail, and, remarkably, there is very little cone contact even in the most extreme avoidance exercises.

The actual program is incredibly clever with some class room time and a graduation exercise that consists of the attending parents laying out a very complex road course with the cones that the students get to drive as fast as they can (again with a very strict admonition not to make cone contact).

There are no winners in the road course because there is such variety in cars from 1980’s Volvos to classic M Style Bimmers to Priusses to Pocket Rockets.

While the kids are flogging the cars with the instructors, many parents are watching from the sidelines. Even the side line watching provide valuable knowledge to the parents. One father standing next to me said: “I bought that old Volvo because it is built like a tank and should keep her safe”. Two minutes later, the Volvo ate a half a dozen cones in a high speed (45 mph) avoidance exercise due to its massive understeer and sloppy suspension. Tanks may not be the best solution for your child’s protection.

It is amazing to see that 1980’s superhot BMW’s can be outrun by late 2000’s Chevy Cobalt SS’s, and every now and then you see a kid perfectly transition a Hemi powered Dodge Ram pickup and you know that this kid should only drive (and win) on race courses because she is too good and loves it too much.

Without Street Survival, the reality is that the vast majority of young drivers never, ever, are taught to really nail the brakes at 45 mph. And when they have to, the car will shudder and shake, and then they can make any number of errors with deadly results. However, having done this once with an instructor next to you saying: “Yeah this shuddering in this car is normal, it is ABS, don’t ease off and keep steering”, is a huge advance in being able to manage a real emergency. Since the kids get to drive their own cars, they will now know how their cars will behave at the edge and this enlarges the number of options that they will have in OODAing the emergency.

Only our youngest took the class (fortunately the other two made it through the high risk period with limited scratches and we all made sure the lessons of the class were transferred to them too), but I was fortunate enough to tell my Motown car engineer brother in law about the program and all his kids took the class.

His oldest was driving the family car with my brother in law in the co-pilot seat. They went through a green traffic light while another car ran the red. My brother in law told me his daughter reacted flawlessly, and what could have been a serious accident turned out to be no more than a near miss (and another learning experience).

While Street Survival is not a maritime training program, it has all the components that should be included in all maritime training programs:

  1. 1.  A completely new learning experience (expanded horizon)
  2. 2.  Exploration of the edge of survival
  3. 3.  Feedback from experienced instructors
  4. 4.  An element of fun
  5. 5.  An extremely high learning-to-time invested ratio (efficient learning)
  6. 6.  Ability to immediately put the new skills to use (useful skills)
  7. 7.  Increased student skills at being able to handle emergencies
  8. 8.  Low cost

The last two factors need some further discussion.

I was young once too, and seeing some of the young bucks in their pocket rockets did not fully convince me that their increased skills will only be used in accident avoidance. This could constitute an unintended effect from training, and while the instructors drill them hard on responsible road behavior, youth being what it is, that may not be sufficient. At the same time I’d rather have a trained young maniac on the road than an untrained maniac (which more closely resembled my personnel young driver mode).

While the program only costs $95, the actual cost is higher, since it is run by volunteers and sponsored by companies like Michelin and Tire Rack. Volunteers seem to really enjoy it, I have never seen more grinning people in one place than the instructors. As far as sponsoring is concerned, don’t feel bad for Tire Rack or Michelin. If you decide to sign your kid up for the program, make sure you send her to the  class in a car with end of life tires. When your kid and the instructor are done with the class, you will need a new set of tires! (And allow me to advertise that the set of Michelin Pilots that I ended up putting on the family Honda CRV, are the best matched set of tires I have ever had on any car.) But, in the end, buying a new set of tires is nothing more than a fair trade and that is what makes the world go round. Training can be expensive, and, when developing training programs, it makes sense to identify those stake holders who benefit, and to involve them in the training process. Occasionally those stake holders, like tire manufacturers, may actually benefit commercially and that is where the money for training sometimes can be found.

Scroll down on the street survival website and there is a nice video. The driving in the video is not all that extreme, and it makes sense to not overdo it in the video, but in real life you will get to hear full throttle hemis and smell rubber and in Street Survival there is nothing wrong with that.

Note: this blog is a follow up on our earlier blog on training methods.

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