Driving team teaches advanced techniques

By Kathie Kroll
March 17, 2009, 3:22PM
Road conditions can be awful in Northeast Ohio. You’re nearly three times more likely to get into a weather-related wreck here than in the rest of the country, accident data show.

SkidCarFor Ken Stout, those statistics are an opportunity. Harsh winters, rainy summers and aging roads make driving around here significantly harder than in sunny, dry areas. People in this region need to become better drivers, said the president of the Drive Team driving school in Cuyahoga Falls.

DriveTeam, Inc. which since 1991 offered skid-recovery courses and other advanced driving classes in the parking lot of Blossom Music Center, recently moved into its own facility — a 12-acre site with lots of open pavement for vehicle dynamics, crash avoidance, and skid recovery.

The new location has sprinklers built into the pavement to create slick conditions. It also has three vehicles that simulate skids — a passenger car, a small commercial truck and a tractor-trailer.

Few other driving schools in Ohio or elsewhere boast those capabilities. The Mid-Ohio School in Lexington, south of Mansfield, periodically offers skid training at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course racetrack.

“The general public does not have a high level of skill behind the wheel,” Stout said. “We train drivers with hands-on experience — what a bad situation feels like and how to recover from it.”

Drive Team’s biggest customers are fire and police departments and corporate fleet managers. Their drivers spend more time on the road than typical commuters, and fleet operators can get significant breaks on insurance rates by offering advanced training, Stout said.

But with the new facility in place, the company is more aggressively marketing its services to teen drivers and their parents, senior citizens and members of the general driving public. Fliers for the company’s teen-oriented courses focus on how to “challenge students to understand the limits of their vehicles, and themselves, in a controlled environment.”

Most drivers could benefit from being more aware of the dangers of bad-weather driving, say public safety officials.

Drivers in the seven-county area that includes Cleveland are nearly three times more likely to get into a weather-related traffic accident than people in other parts of the country SOURCES: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Ohio Dept. of Public Safety Ohio State Highway Patrol safety spokesman Sgt. Darrin Blosser said that given Ohio’s treacherous winter road conditions, “People need to allow themselves extra time to reach their destinations.”

Accident investigators regularly see two common factors in weather-related crashes — excessive speed and failing to leave enough space between vehicles, he said.

And don’t expect your car to save you from doing something stupid. Advanced technologies such as stability control and anti-lock brakes can help prevent accidents, but they can’t overcome the basic laws of physics, said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If you’re driving too fast on slick roads, computers won’t save you.

“People think that just because they have stability control or all-wheel drive, they can do whatever they want on snow,” Tyson said. “All-wheel drive helps you with acceleration, but it doesn’t do anything to stop you when you hit the brakes.”

While the state does not recommend or endorse winter skills driving courses, Blosser said Ohio residents should anticipate and prepare for poor conditions.

Stout said the best way to prepare yourself for winter driving is to get a real sense of what it feels like to go into an uncontrolled skid and learn how to handle the situation.

Last month, when a thick layer of snow covered the company’s test tracks, that was easy. Teaching ice-driving techniques on warm, sunny days presents a challenge.

One of Drive Team’s skid vehicles is a Chevrolet Impala that has outriggers attached under the front and rear axles. At the ends of the outriggers are four small motors attached to wheels. The driving instructor can use the motors to lift the front or the rear of the car slightly off the road, simulating the loss of control you get when your car wheels slip.

It’s one thing to be told how to recover from a skid, said George Busey, a retired Macedonia police officer and an instructor at Drive Team. It’s another to feel those wheels slip away and have to find a way of steering an out-of-control, 2-ton beast.

“Always try to look where you want to go. Your hands will follow your eyes,” Busey said.

Recovering from skids is not a mental exercise, he said. It’s more of a physical reaction. Drivers often have to fight the urge to slam on the brakes or jerk the wheel. Classroom instruction can tell you what to do, but if you haven’t experienced the conditions or the adrenaline rush that accompanies them, Busey said, it’s too easy to forget those lessons.

“You need to learn the limits of what you can do and what your car can do,” he said.