Between 2009 and 2010, seven Bonny Eagle High School students were involved in serious car accidents. One student was killed. When school officials heard the Ford Driving Skills for Life program was coming to Maine, they vowed to bring it to Bonny Eagle.

The DSFL program has been wending its way through 30 cities across the nation. Here in Maine, it also made a stop at Scarborough High School. Hundreds of students from both schools were able to participate and get hands-on experience learning safe driving skills.

At the invitation of Knight Vision International, I drove over to Bonny Eagle to see the program in action. Even before I got to the driving course, which was set up in the back parking lot, I could hear the repeated sound of screeching brakes!

Only students with a valid driver’s license or learning permit were allowed to get behind the wheel. They went in groups of three and always in the company of one of the program’s trained driving instructors.

Texting and driving
In the red car, they had to drive around a circuitous track, first with both hands on the wheel and eyes straight ahead, and then while sending a text message.

Alex Stoddard confirmed that “It is very difficult trying to text and drive at the same time.”

Caleb Porter agreed. “It’s way more difficult than I ever realized.”

“You don’t realize that even on straight roads you’re drifting all over the place,” chimed in Nathaniel Davis.

Stephen Kessler said, “I never texted while driving before and I’ll never do it now.”

Driving under the influence
Kids in the green car had to drive wearing special goggles that distorted what they saw. Rianne Johnson said looking through the goggles “made it feel like things were far away.” The goal was to simulate what you see when you are under the influence.

What to do if you start to skid?
The endless screeching brakes came from the white car as kids learned what do if you’re in a skid.

Alicia Hoyt did a show-stopping 360 when she started to spin out. Bear in mind that all of the hands-on driving experiences happened in a safe, controlled environment. A professional driving instructor was in the car telling Alicia and the other students what to do (and not do) to get out of a skid.

“When I sped out completely, it was really nerve-wracking,” she told me.

Fellow driver Shannon Sanborn said it feels “like you’ve lost complete control because everything is moving so fast that you can’t see where you’re going. The instructor stressed that you should look at where you want to go instead of just straight ahead and let your foot off the gas. The natural reaction is to keep your foot on the gas, but he said to pull it off the pedal and don’t put it on the gas either.”

Alicia and Shannon agreed that they each feel more confident. It was a bit scary at first, but they’re glad they could practice how to handle a skid in the parking lot with a trained instructor instead of alone in the middle of a snowstorm.

The DSFL program is designed to teach students key skills that could ultimately not only save their lives but the life of someone else. It was established in 2003 by the Ford Motor Company Fund, the Governors Highway Safety Association and a panel of safety experts. The Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, AAA Northern New England, Scarborough Police Department and Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department also participated in the Maine events.

No license yet?
For students who don’t have a license yet, there were plenty of activities for them as well, that included trying to walk in a straight line wearing the goggles that distort your vision to using computerized driving simulators

Driving tips from Maine’s own Stephanie Reaves
One of the Ford driving instructors just happens to be from Maine. Stephanie Reaves, who lives in Buxton and whose youngest child goes to Bonny Eagle, is a professional drag racer who also teaches people how to drive race cars at the Richard Petty Driving Experience in North Carolina. She passed along some tips that are valuable no matter what your age. For instance, she says that most new drivers she talks to want to be responsible drivers and, in her opinion, it’s older drivers who often set a bad example. “They have this false sense of security,” she told me, “that because they’ve been driving more, they’re able to multi-task. So, they’re setting a bad example for their kids. They’re telling them not to text and drive and all the while they’re doing it themselves. So, kids think if their parents can do it, so can they.” The difficulty, says Stephanie, is getting parents to break their own bad habits.

Safe driving habits
The goal of the Ford Driving Skills for Life program is to teach new drivers good habits.

“The number one skill a driver needs,” professional driving instructor Mike Speck told students, “is the sheer ability to concentrate on the task at hand.”

Are you paying attention? If you want to be a safe driver, when you are behind the wheel you need to focus and concentrate on nothing else but your driving.