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October 20, 2013

News & Features

Teen safety: Drivers' ed teaches perils of distracted driving

Special to NWautos

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Swerve instructor Gabe Hochwald teaches Charles Wilson driving skills. (Matthew St. Pierre / Swerve)

It's 8:10 a.m., first period at King's High School in Shoreline, and the subject of the day's drivers' education class is the brain.

"Driving is boring," says instructor Matthew St. Pierre in a firm wake-up voice strong enough to command the attention of 23 sophomores. "So you end up doing other things: talking on the cellphone, texting, singing to the radio."

The problem, says St. Pierre, is you can't do these things and drive safely. "Multitasking is a myth," he says.

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As an instructor with Swerve Driving School, which has a contract with King's High School, St. Pierre, 30, has seen the future of driving in America — and it is distracted, often by electronic devices that compete for new drivers' attention.

The essential challenge for teaching teen drivers today, he says, is getting them to understand the limits of the human brain.

As an example of how distracted the brain can be, St. Pierre shows his students a short video of two teams passing a basketball and asks the class to count the number of passes the team in white makes. At the end of the video, the class calls out the correct answer — 13.

St. Pierre asks, "How many of you saw the dancing bear?" The class is dumbfounded — what dancing bear? When he replays the video, it's clear: a person in a bear costume moonwalking in the middle of the video. Lesson: You can't see what you're not looking for.

Another multitasking lesson involves giving students two tasks, first separately and then together — such as repeatedly writing a phrase and counting to a certain number. He times them to show how much longer it took to complete the dual task and how many more errors were made.

St. Pierre also advocates "commentary driving," asking students to describe out loud objects they see on the road, especially as they approach intersections. "This keeps them alert and forces them to concentrate," he says.

Scott Walmsley, owner of Driver Education Services Seattle in the Fremont neighborhood and a driving instructor since 1995, says many teens who have grown up constantly connected to an electronic device find it harder to concentrate on driving.

The trend that concerns him even more than texting is what he calls "being extremely geographically challenged."

Unlike teens in previous generations, who grew up looking out the car window as their parents drove, Walmsley says today's teen passengers are so fixed to electronic screens that they barely lift their heads to see where they are going.

"Not knowing their way around — that's a huge problem," says Walmsley. "I know kids who have lived in Ballard for 16 years and can't find their way to the Ballard Bridge."

He advises his students to ride in the front seat and notice where they're going when they're not driving. Another technique is to let them find their own way. "As the lessons go on, I step down the level of assistance," he says.

"By the fifth lesson, I might just tell the student to drive to the Space Needle, Northgate, Husky Stadium, downtown or some other well-known location," he says. "I want them to at least be able to point the car in the right direction."

A former graphic designer, Walmsley, 60, teaches teens to drive using a combination of humorous Power Point slides, videos and an arcade-style video game he created by connecting two Logitech steering wheels to a PlayStation 3 console. He also recommends Fastlane Street Racing to his students, an app that helps them with steering.

New drivers in Washington must pass a course from a state-certified driving school, where they get a minimum of 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of driving in a school car equipped with an instructor brake.

Caleb Ness, 15, is among those learning to drive at King's. He sees the dangers of texting and using cellphones, but is optimistic that his generation will figure it out.

"I think texting and driving is a really bad idea," Ness says. "But I have a strategy. When I'm driving, I'm going to turn it off."

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