Techniques for taming the Skid Monster make up just one facet of a unique new education program for teen drivers that is about to take off in Lexington.
The program, a non-profit that will focus on crash avoidance, is scheduled to begin June 6. It's for Lexington residents ages 16 to 19 who have had at least 20 hours of highway driving experience while holding a driver's permit.
"The whole purpose is to teach them how not to get killed," said Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts, who came up with the idea.
Most teens, thanks in part to the popularity of video games and text messaging, have excellent hand-eye coordination and don't have a problem maneuvering cars, said Billy Fryer, who will be the new program's lead instructor.
"But when it comes to knowing when an accident is about to occur, they don't have that knowledge," said Fryer, a former Lexington police officer who has years of experience teaching police officers how to drive under various circumstances. Usually a teen driver doesn't learn how to make an evasive maneuver until he or she is about to have his or her first accident, he said.
"The number one thing is to teach the students what danger looks like," he said. "We're teaching them what to look for, when they're likely to find it and then what's the proper action to take. That's where the Skid Monster comes in."
With a Skid Monster, the rear wheels and tires of a car are removed and replaced with caster wheels. Each caster wheel is locked with a pin to roll forward. An instructor can push a button inside the car or on a remote, releasing the pins, freeing the wheels to spin in any direction and causing the vehicle to go into a spin, much like a car might do on a slippery road or in certain types of collisions.
With proper acceleration, brake application and steering, a driver can get the vehicle out of the skid and back on track, Fryer said.
The Skid Monster, invented by educator Fred Mottola, has been used in other school systems and police training programs.
In addition to driving cars outfitted with Skid Monsters, students in the program will participate in interactive computer lessons, use driving simulators and drive regular cars. They'll also have homework, Roberts said.
The cost of the 20-hour, weeklong course is $350.
Classes will be held from 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday for nine weeks during the summer, when school is not in session. Classes will continue on a modified schedule during the school year.
Initially, classes will be held in a rented temporary classroom and a driving pad on city property on Old Frankfort Pike.
Planning for a permanent classroom and a new driving pad in the area is in the works. Roberts said he hopes the new facilities will be completed by February.
Roberts said corporate donors have committed about $200,000 in in-kind and monetary donations for the new driving pad, which is expected to cost about $360,000. He said he has some commitments for the classroom building, which is expected to cost more than $500,000.
Toyota on Nicholasville has agreed to provide 11 new cars for the program and to replace those cars every six months. Two of the cars will be outfitted with Skid Monsters, Roberts said.
Fayette County Public Schools stopped offering driver-education classes more than 25 years ago because of the costs involved. The new program is being established to help fill that void.
"The (state) driver's test really only indicates we can operate a car," said Terry Kline, project coordinator at the Traffic Safety Institute at Eastern Kentucky University, who helped develop the program. Kline also has developed traffic safety programs for young drivers in other states.
Most parents have a hard time teaching their teenage children how to avoid crashes, he said. And car-handling techniques taught in the 1960s, such as steering into a skid to get a vehicle to stop, aren't effective with modern vehicles, he said.
Driver inattention, failure to yield and driving too close behind another vehicle were the top three factors in collisions involving teen drivers in Fayette County in 2010, Roberts said.
Teens think they can text-message and drive, he said. Since the county attorney's office began several months ago taking two driving simulators to local high schools to help students learn better driving skills, more than 600 local teens have found out otherwise, Roberts said.
Not a single student has been able to successfully complete a simulated driving lesson while texting, Roberts said.
One of the biggest reasons for fatal accidents involving young drivers is the mishandling of a vehicle after its wheels drop off the road surface, Kline said. Teen drivers often overcorrect or make improper decisions in regard to speed, he said.
"You really notice it in Fayette County because of the type of roadways we have," he said.
A non-profit corporation called Fayette County Attorney Driver Education LLC has been set up to receive money for the new driver's education program, including its building projects and salaries for employees. There will be two full-time employees and about a half-dozen part-time instructors. Besides corporate donations, private contributions and student fees will be used to keep the program going, Roberts said.
"I've already had parents who want to take this course," said Roberts, who recently began holding presentations about the course at local high schools. "This is not just going out in a car and driving around a parking lot."
Keith Galloway, assistant principal for grades nine through 12 at Lexington Christian Academy, said the driver-education program is long overdue.
"Mr. Roberts, I think, has done a good job of trying to put the research behind it," he said. "I think what they're doing — the heart behind it — will help the safety of our community."
Students and their parents will have to wait and see whether completing the course will result in lower insurance rates.
"That's up to the insurance companies. They'll have to look at our program and then decide," Roberts said.
To register for the course, call program director David Carr at (859) 226-1896 or email him at David.Carr@fayettecountyattorney.com.