Street Survival Guide

By Nicole Tropea
Nov 24, 2014 | BMW | Posted in Features | From the Nov. 2014 issue | Never miss an article

I am not a car person. I have never claimed to be one. Sure, I spend a lot of time around car lovers, but when I accidentally ripped the bumper off my first car by catching it on a curb, I was as scared and clueless as any other young driver.

That’s probably why several people–whose names I will not mention–recently decided to sign me up for Tire Rack’s Street Survival school, a one-day class that’s somewhere between a high school driver’s ed course and the racing schools of the motorsport world.

Of course, I was resistant to the idea: How bad at driving did they think I was? But when I arrived at the First Coast Technical College campus near St. Augustine, Florida, and found out just what this school would be teaching, I realized it was exactly the driver’s education class I needed–and should have gotten when I first started driving.

When I got the email that I’d been signed up for a driving class, I immediately started having flashbacks to high school driver’s ed–a twice-weekly, after-school snorefest filled with textbooks, written tests, and sweaty gym teachers who’d volunteered to yell at teenagers for an extra 6 hours a week. It was, to say the least, an uncomfortable environment.

Although I did learn proper procedure for parking my car on an imaginary Florida hill, I never once learned how to check tire pressure, how to adjust mirrors, or even what ABS feels like when it’s working.

I left that class almost exactly as nervous and incompetent as before, so I ended up turning to other people in my life to fill in the blanks as I experienced problems. That strategy wasn’t very helpful, either, since my dad was short-tempered, my boyfriend kept telling me I was ruining the car, and my mom preferred the abstinence approach to car accident prevention. After a few weeks of enduring this “advice,” I decided that I would tune them all out and settle for the minimal learning experiences offered by my 5-mile commute to work.

Back to School

When I arrived at the school, I was relieved to find myself surrounded by people in more or less the same situation I was. It started off with a quick classroom session outlining what we’d be doing that day. Students were divided into two groups: one for teens who had just gotten their licenses or even learner’s permits, and another for more experienced drivers.

At 20 years old, I was the oldest person in the class, which put me squarely in the second group. With everyone sorted, it was time for the fun part. My group left the classroom and headed out to our cars for a preliminary check, during which I finally learned how to check my tire pressures– pathetic, I know. After that, we spent an hour on the driving course with a coach.

The first few trips around the course were pretty stressful, and I can only imagine how nervous the younger students felt when they hit cones or skidded off the pavement. But I know that it was worth it. We all learned something important from making and correcting mistakes that cause so many deadly accidents on the road. And once the nerves wore off, it was a blast. Who knew I’d have such a knack for drifting on the wet skidpad?

The most important thing I learned was that, as the classroom instructor emphasized, “losing control of the car” is a myth. As long as your hands are on the wheel, your feet can reach the pedals, and nothing major is broken, you can control the vehicle. It’s just a matter of knowing how. The hands-on experience of maintaining control through swerves, quick lane changes, braking turns, and wet driving surfaces wasn’t just helpful–it was really, really fun.

This course time was the best learning experience a student could ever hope to have in a driving class. However, the classroom session provided a ton of equally valuable background information about how to be as safe as possible on the road. It may not have been as exciting as the time spent driving, but it was just as beneficial.

Comparing it to a public school driver’s education class would be an insult: The instructor made it a priority to not only tell us what to do and what not to do while driving, but also to explain exactly why we should or should not do those things.

Don’t sit too far away from the wheel because that limits your steering and braking abilities in case of an emergency. Don’t let your tire pressure get too low because that changes the footprint and gripping ability of your tire. Don’t lift your foot off the brakes if they start pulsing because that means the ABS is working. Always steer with a pulling motion from the top of the wheel because that uses more fine control muscles in the arm than a pushing motion from the bottom of the wheel.

That’s a lot of rules for a young mind to absorb over the course of an hour or so, but they’re much easier to remember when they’re presented with reasoning that makes sense.

The Bottom Line

It’s been a few weeks since my Street Survival experience. Has this course changed my life? Yes and no.

For me, driving is no longer just a chore I have to complete to get from Point A to Point B. Thankfully, I haven’t needed to use any of the emergency maneuvers I learned in the class, but it’s unbelievably comforting and confidence-inspiring knowing they’re in my skill set.

The most immediate impact of this class, though, has been on those around me. My parents don’t worry quite so much about my driving, and my boyfriend no longer calls every few miles to make sure I’m okay. Even if this class never has the chance to save my life, it will probably save me at least a few trips to the body shop.

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car39 HalfDork
11/24/14 2:03 p.m.

I've been involved in a program like this for several years. The students all look like they're about to be sentenced to hard labor in the morning, and are loving life by the end of it. Even the timid driver comes out with a little more confidence at the end. The best reward of the program from a provided end is hearing more than once from a parent that their child avoided an accident after attending and they credit the course for the knowledge. Small plug for the program I was with:

Will SuperDork
11/24/14 2:16 p.m.

I wish all students were into it by the end of the day. I've had several Street Survival students who just didn't care at all, even during/after the wet skid pad fun stuff. I don't expect them to love it so much they come back again, but if I can keep them from killing themselves/you/me later on, then I did my job as an instructor.

M2Pilot HalfDork
11/24/14 10:06 p.m.

Not a valid sample size, but my son did Street Survival (in a lifted Jeep) around 15 years or so back. One of my nephews did it a couple of years later. 2 other nephews had the opportunity but didn't partake.

My son & the nephew who did Street Survival have never had an automotive accident. The other 2 nephews have had 4 or 5 accidents between the 2 of them over the past 12 years or so.

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