By BUTCH WEIR/Editor, The Poplarville Democrat
The Picayune Item
Poplarville High School juniors and seniors had some hands-on, top notch driving skill lessons last Thursday, courtesy of a program from the Ford Motor Corp.
The Ford Motor Company’s Ford Driving Skills for Life program had selected Poplarville High School as one of three schools in the state of Mississippi to participate the safe-driving program.
Nationwide. only 30 schools were selected in this program cycle, according to information from The Ford Motor Company.
Adding impetus to the importance of the program, Mississippi’s First Lady Marsha Barbour visited with the students at a short mid-day program in the high school gym. Barbour, along with the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, is a major supporter of the program in the state and she had planned to visit all three schools when the Ford driving unit was scheduled to appear.
Barbour reminded students their reflexes are not trained as well to respond to things that are happening around them.
“The car is a very dangerous machine. You’ve got graduation coming up, and proms and lots of fun that I know you want to have. Just please be responsible when you get in the car.
“We’re doing all of this because we care about you.”
Poplarville School District Supt. Carl Merritt said the goal of the program is to bring awareness to teenage drivers of the dangers of distracted driving, such as texting while driving, and the need for defensive driving habits.
When asked what he hoped the students would learn from this experience Merritt said, “Put your cell phones down and drive.”
This point was clearly brought home to students in one of the four hands-on driving courses set up in the student parking lot in front of the high school.
Senior Collin Mathis said driving experience was good.
“The texting and driving and drunken driving ... I didn’t know how that would react to me, but ... It’s very difficult; the driving courses were really difficult — texting, it’s very dangerous.
“You’ve got to focus on what you’re really doing ... It was a really good experience,” he said, and several of his friends said the event made them more aware of what they did when driving.
Three students at a time got into the cars with a trained Ford driver. Each took turns negotiating a tight course marked with orange warning cones while talking or texting on a cell phone or with goggles that simulated drunk driving.
Alexx Kennedy, Taysa Bonner and Jessica Broome all agreed the courses taught them about being more aware when they were driving.
“It was as really great experience and I think we learned a lot, Kennedy said. “It was like a real shock factor when we put on the drunk goggles; we really didn’t think it was going to be that bad. It was really disorienting.”
Broome said the whole course “was really an eye opening experience” but she said the spin out car was also her favorite of the four car skills.
Bonner said she laughed a lot during the event but believes the lessons will stay with her. “I guess doing it in a fun way you learn more about stuff like that. It opens your eyes a lot.”
Both Merritt and Ilene Davis, high school principal, said the program is timely for Poplarville because the school prom is scheduled for April 9. The event is to be held at the Mississippi National Guard armory here.
Ford instructors, Juan Babun of Honduras, who started with the Ford program in 2003 and is a professional stock car racer, said this particular tour covers 30 cities in 15 states that takes approximately two months to complete. There were four instructors who handled the actual skills driving and all are professions drivers with 15 to 20 years experience.
In the background, squealing tires could be heard as other students tried to simulate dealing with the various road condition simulations.
“It’s really cool when they (students) get in the car and they think they have better judgment and ability and then when the climb in the car and they find themselves having a little bit of difficulty,” Babun said. “They learn more about themselves ... and they end up learning that they maybe have to make some adjustments with their driving skills.”
Babun said Ford has learned the worth of the program from feedback from earlier programs in other states.
He said in Illinois, where the program was heavily involved in an attempt to get a handle on a large number of teenage crashes, the incidence of crashes dropped by almost 50 percent.
Mike Speck, the lead driving instructor with the Ford group who presented the short program in the gym, said “The skills that we have as race drivers are actually pretty similar to skills that you need to be good on the street.”
He said that “About 5,000 teens between the ages of 13 and 19 die every year in the United States due to car crashes.” He says that works out to 15 teenagers a day dying in car crashes.
He said there are three basic skills that make a good driver: Using intelligence, your brain and what’s in it; Have a feel for the car, sense what the car is telling you; and, where you look is where you go — “Wherever you look is wherever is exactly where you take the car.”
“The decision that you make in the car are yours, they are nobody else’s. And those decisions can and will affect what happens to you and those around you.”