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Buying & Leasing a Car

Street Smarts for Teen Drivers

To encourage save driving, consider adding an emergency-maneuvers driving course to your teen's training.

When I was 15, I took driver's ed so I could drive on my 16th birthday. The high school shop teacher -- a humorless fellow with a crew cut and thick-soled black shoes -- taught the course. He showed us a lot of filmstrips about teens who took chances and met their demise, and we spent a lot of time learning how to parallel park. Did it make me a better driver? Probably not. But you should see me pull a Suburban into a Suzuki-size space.

Now that my son is of driving age, I'm doing things differently. I've already put in countless white-knuckled hours riding shotgun as he makes mistakes behind the wheel and I (not always calmly, I admit) correct them. Because he needs a whole lot more experience, it will probably be another six months -- when he is 18 -- before he gets his license.

Extreme driving

I've added another ingredient to the recipe for safe teen driving: an emergency-maneuvers driving course. So on a recent Saturday I watched my son and two dozen other teens accelerate and slam on the brakes, take curves too fast and make the car skid on a hosed-down parking lot -- all to practice regaining control.

The one-day course, called Street Survival, is designed to give teens the skills to deal with extreme conditions. Supported by the BMW Car Club of America Foundation and Tire Rack, an online store, it has grown from a few sessions in 2003 to nearly 40 in 2006. Most sessions are organized by the local BMW Car Club of America and staffed by volunteers, who ride with the teens as they go through maneuvers. The volunteers are car enthusiasts and often high-performance-driving instructors.

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Students bring their own cars, which is useful for learning a car's limits but can do a number on its tires. Before the kids head to the driving course, they must sit through a short class. Our instructor went over essential concepts of safe driving, such as the importance of always looking ahead, how braking and cornering change the traction of tires, and how to handle skids.

My son nodded at me when the instructor repeated concepts I'd told him but that he hadn't taken seriously before. In the maneuvers, he was, ah, enthusiastic, which earned him the moniker Cone Killer.

A bargain price

A nice surprise about Street Survival is the cost: $60, which included breakfast and lunch for me and my son. A few other low-cost courses are gaining traction. For example, Driver's Edge, sponsored by Bridgestone, is offered in a dozen cities and is free. Other programs cost several hundred dollars (see a list of courses).

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Most insurance companies offer up to a 20% break for teenage drivers who maintain a B average. State Farm and Allstate also have home-based programs that can knock another 15% off premiums. But so far insurance companies have been reluctant to offer discounts for completing an advanced-skills course. The problem is a lack of data and a misconception that the extra confidence will lead to more-risky driving, says Bill Wade, national program manager for Street Survival. "I equate it to the thought that if we teach kids about sex, they're going to go out and have sex," he says.

Until there's a greater financial reward for advanced-skills training, the number of participants is likely to be limited. So it's up to parents to make sure that kids learn the skills they need to stay out of trouble. If you're not up to that task, do your teen -- and the other drivers on the road -- a favor and find someone who is.

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