Thursday, May 15, 2008
Ford's "Driving Skills For Life" Program
Alex and I had the opportunity, courtesy of the Ford Motor Fund, to take a little overnight jaunt to Chicago on Mother's Day to observe and take part in their "Driving Skills For Life" program. It's a safety program geared toward teen drivers, in which the kids get hands-on experience behind the wheel, guided by professional drivers. The exercises concentrated on things like hazard recognition, reaction time, speed, and vehicle handling.
We had an uneventful flight (well, once we got on the plane, anyway) into Chicago on Mother's Day, and were met by a very pleasant driver, who would prove to be a nice counterpoint to the next day's surly driver. Alex wasted no time at all in making himself right at home in the limo.
We arrived in downtown Chicago with plenty of time to check into our well-appointed suite at the Embassy Suites hotel, relax a bit, and get ready for dinner. At the nice, not-too-early, not-too-late hour of 6:00PM, we gathered in the hotel lobby with our hosts from Ford and Social Media Group, and headed out to Maggiano's Little Italy, where we were treated to an enormous "family style" meal.
The food was good, and more than plentiful, and the company was interesting and engaging. Seated closest to me, representing Ford, so that we were able to visit a bit, were Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood, and Vice-President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, Sue Cischke.
Wes and I had a common bond in that we both have 5-year-olds who will be starting kindergarten in the fall, so we had plenty to talk about there! The Ford folks at our table that night didn't seem to have very much background in social media (double-kudos to them for hiring a liaison who is social-media savvy), so much of our conversation was centered around The Way Of The Internet. It's obvious to me that big companies NEED go-betweens to help get their messages out to the online community--and there's nothing wrong with that! These are busy people in high-powered, high-stress careers, who don't have time to be blog-surfing or Twittering all day long. At the same time, Ford Motor Company obviously does have some internet-savvy folks among their ranks, as evidenced by their Flickr stream. Check it out--what they've done there is very, very smart: They have a good Flickr presence, with high-quality, well-described and tagged professional photos which they've made free for anyone's use. They also use the account to comment on others' photos, and add their own photos to all applicable Flickr groups, for maximum exposure. Smart, smart, SMART.
In conversation with Wes, I sensed a sincere desire on the part of Ford to connect with bloggers, their readers, and the consumer in general--this was not a slick, fake "shill" in the least. This was a regular guy, dedicated to his job, and honestly excited about the opportunities ahead, especially the importance of the DSFL program.
I could have spent another several hours listening to Sue Cischke, too. This is an inspiring woman doing a BIG job, and she has an amazing amount of knowledge over a broad area of expertise in her industry. I was most excited to hear her describing some of the research that's being done right now in developing new fuel sources...if I give you my dumbed-down version of that conversation, it's this: CARS WILL RUN ON GARBAGE. OK, so, yeah, I'm over-simplifying. But it's coming, I tell you! I came away with the feeling that, if I'd asked Sue, "So, where are our flying cars?" she'd have explained to me just how far along the flying-car research is at this point in time. Long story short (too late for that?), I was quite impressed by Sue.
We were able to get back to the hotel at a very decent hour, which, after the madcap pace of the J&J event, I really appreciated, especially since we had to be checked out and ready to go at 8:00 the next morning. Alex and I rolled out at the appointed time the next day, had a lovely breakfast of custom-made omelets in the company of the lovely Zoe Siskos of Social Media Group, and then went outside into a beautiful Chicago morning to wait for the car service to come and take us to Cellular Field (home of the White Sox) for the DSFL program. And we waited. And waited. An hour and a half we waited, apparently due to some mix-up with the car service (their fault, thankyouverymuch). Because of that delay, we missed part of the DSFL program--the "hazard recognition" portion, specifically.
We were, however, able to catch most of the program, and got to observe the teenage audience soaking in the talks given by Ford's professional drivers, all of whom seemed to have racing backgrounds.
The first session we observed focused on distractions, and many of the teens seemed genuinely surprised at how easily their attention was taken off the road, as the professional drivers riding along with them moved their mirrors, messed with the radio, pointed out landmarks...and then cheerfully informed the young drivers that they'd just missed a stop sign or taken out a road cone. POINT MADE. It was a hoot.
Then it was time for what we'd all been waiting for: The SKID CARS. We'd been watching the pro drivers spin out and skid the specially-customized Mustangs all over the Cellular Field parking lot all morning, and it just looked like a lot of fun.
The Mustangs were specially fitted with casters which took a great deal of the weight off the rear wheels, making the cars much more prone to skid in a turn.
Our next instructor, one of my favorites, did a fantastic job of explaining the physics of a skid in terms that the teenagers (and myself) could easily understand. I especially appreciated his detailed discussion of "target fixation," the phenomena which occurs when, instead of concentrating on where we're trying to direct our vehicle, we visually "fixate" on the object we're trying to avoid...which, ironically, makes us all the more likely to have a collision with that very object.
I was very impressed by all the professional drivers at work on this morning--they were cheerful, accessible, helpful, and very easy to understand. Also, they all had rockin' shades.
Alex and I exercised remarkable restraint in not shoving any of the kids aside to get our turn to drive one of the skid cars. We waited patiently, like grownups, and then got our chance. Our driver/instructor, who was impossibly young, was personable and fun. His name was David Bahr, and you can even check out his website. He showed us the basics of handling the car, then all too abruptly announced that it was MY turn. You know, to go too fast around the turn, so that I'd spin out, so that I could then try to correct the vehicle, pull out of the skid, and stay on the course.
I have to tell you, this exercise was very difficult for me to even attempt. Being a single gal with horses to tow and dogs to carry to shows for most of my adult life, I've only ever owned SUVs and pickup trucks. And if there's one thing that I'm cautious to the point of paranoia about in driving those vehicles, it is most definitely that you DO NOT NEGOTIATE TURNS AT SPEED, because that will cause your SUV or pickup truck to TURN OVER. David had to encourage me pretty vigorously to "accelerate into the turn!" To which I would answer, "I don't want to!"
Ultimately, though, I got up my nerve enough to let 'er rip (if David is reading this, I assure you that he is laughing his HEAD off at MY interpretation of "letting 'er rip,"), and felt the rear end of the Mustang sliding away from me, to the outside. My instinctive response? I let go of the wheel. This is not the right answer, for those of you following along at home. By "let go," I don't mean that I threw my hands up in the air or anything, just that I released my grip on the steering wheel enough so that it slid freely through my grasp of its own volition, until it reached the "home" position in which the wheels were straight. This tactic totally works... if you're going 3 miles per hour. But at skidding speed? Not so much. So my first attempt had me facing back the way I'd come, which is not what you want. But the next few times, I conquered that bugaboo, and manually corrected the wheel as David had instructed. I did not "target fixate," which kind of surprised me, because when I'd been outside the car, I'd been hyper-aware of all the nearby lampposts scattered between the skid courses, and was sure I'd be sliding into at least one of them, or, worse yet, another car.
But here's what I did NOT see coming, and herein lies the value of an opportunity like this, an opportunity to have a "controlled accident:" All through my skids, even the corrections, my tendency was to NEVER TAKE MY FOOT OFF THE GAS. That's right, something in my brain thought it would be a good idea to just keep on accelerating through the entire process. David had to say, "stop," every single time before I'd remember to brake. That, folks, was a rude awakening, and something I never would have guessed to be a problem. David informed us that it was a common accident response, because of adrenalin, tension, and inexperience (and really, how many of us are "experienced" at having--or avoiding--accidents?).
I'd also like to thank David for his take on one of my personal little pet peeves of driving instruction, which is the advice to "steer into the skid." That phrase, to me, is deceptive, and what I've always said to myself (and what my dad said to me long, long ago when teaching me to drive) instead, is, "steer in the direction you want the car to go." David said it that way, and it made ever so much more sense than "steer into the skid." He also pointed out the many things that come after "steer into the skid," chief among them the fact that, at some point, you have to STOP. So thanks, David--it was educational and fun, and I learned a lot, even if I'm old enough to be your...um, let's say "cool aunt," OK?
In another little gem of unconventional wisdom, the female race driver we rode with in another session informed us that, in her opionion, the "10:00 and 2:00" position of your hands on the steering wheel doesn't give you nearly the control that you get at 9:00 and 3:00. I've got a feeling that you could take lessons from these drivers for weeks on end and keep learning new things. I know I'd LIKE to.
And then, for our trouble, Ford gave us this sweet, sweet car. Cool, huh?
I'm KIDDING. They gave us a nice lunch. Which Alex and I skipped in favor of a visit to Giordano's before our flight out.
If you'd like more information about Ford's Driving Skills For Life program (I know I, for one, would like to know how to get them to come to MY hometown), follow the links in this post, or leave a comment here, and I'll make sure the right person sees it. This is a company that has always been on the forefront of driver safety research and development, and I found them to be quite open and responsive. Thanks to the Ford Motor Fund for giving us the opportunity to learn more about this great program for teens.
Click here to see my full photo set from this trip.