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Young Drivers of Merit: Steering Students Through
Jennifer Chinn
March 2001
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Susan D'Arcy takes educating her children very seriously. In fact, after the accomplished author and textbook writer became mother of two, she started Merit Academy, a small, private, university-preparatory school in order to guarantee her two daughters would receive the highest of quality education. You may have heard of Merit Academy, they boast the first students in the world to build a hydrogen fuel cell. The students did the grant writing for the project themselves and presented the finished product at academic conferences around the world. They start and run their own private businesses, write lengthy, comprehensive research papers, read a daunting number of classic novels that dovetail with their history studies, and enroll in UCSC math and science courses in high school. All students receive individual instruction and attend weekly meetings with an advisor focusing on study habits, time management, and SAT preparation.

When D'Arcy plans curriculum, she starts with desired exit outcomes, "What does a student need to know by the time he or she graduates from high school?" When the oldest class began to reach the ages of fourteen and fifteen, D'Arcy began her planning of the Driver's Education training course in the same way. "I thought to myself, these kids are about to take on one of the biggest reponsibilities they will ever face-driving a car. They can actually kill themselves or someone else if they aren't well prepared. So when I sat down to create this program I asked myself, 'What does this child need to know to be prepared to take the wheel and be a responsible, safe driver?'"

D'Arcy says all Driver's Ed programs have to follow certain guidelines outlined by the state of California which includes all the state driving laws. "You have to understand what all the rules are; how long to stop at a sign; how much space to allow in front of you; etc. Then of course there's the actual six hours of training behind the wheel. My thought was, 'Okay, but that's not enough.'"

Drug and Alcohol Training
A lot of Driver's Ed courses include some drug and alcohol education, but D'Arcy wanted more than that. On day two of the three week course the kids were greeted by a CHP officer who asked them to step outside and proceeded to arrest one of them. While he had their attention, the officer went through each of the steps he would take if the student had been caught driving under the influence of alcohol or with drugs on his body. He demonstrated all four field sobriety tests and had the students try each one. The officer explained what he was looking for in each test and why a person under the influence may be able to pass one test (especially if he or she had been practicing for it), but never two, because of the way substances affect different parts of the brain. Each student was handcuffed, put into the car, and told what would happen when he or she reached the jail. Students later discussed the pain and humiliation of the whole process and described the day's lesson as "a great eye opener."

Later in the week students took a trip to the hospital Emergency Room. The ER Nurse took them on a tour and shared with them the procedures for treating a minor under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There were tests, reports, and police involvement. The nurse reported that almost every time she sees a sixteen year old in the emergency room, it's for injuries due to an alcohol or drug-related auto accident.

It was a most sobering day in class when a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) came to speak to the students. She shared her story about how her child had become a victim of a drunk driver.

D'Arcy assures that it was not her goal to scare the students, but to give them the real truth. She asked students to remember what they'd heard if they ever got into a situation where they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and encouraged them to call their parents for a ride rather than get behind the wheel. Most importantly, she spoke to both parents and students about setting up a good communication system so that kids can call home and ask for that ride, noting that the fear of being grounded for life, or worse, may keep them from making that call.

CPR and First Aid
Another important component of Merit's driver's training was CPR and First Aid instruction. The American Red Cross came out and did a complete course with the students including certification at the end.

When designing the program D'Arcy realized another piece of driver education was conspicuously missing. "Nobody teaches a student how to maintain a vehicle or even how to know whether something is wrong with it. They may hear or smell something and most would not know what that sound or odor indicates. Most adults don't know much about the actual maintenance of their car, they just take it in to the shop and have someone else take care of it." Therefore, the Merit program included four seminars on automobile maintenance.

Brakes and Smog Check
The students were taken to a local shop and shown how the brakes work, how to bleed brake lines, and how to check brake fluids. They were also taught how a smog check is done.

The technician at the transmission shop gave the students an hour and a half of his time in order to completely disassemble a transmission. The kids participated in putting the transmission back together again giving them a seldom seen opportunity to learn about the gears, the differences between manual and automatic shifts, and the pros and cons of each. Oil and Lube

Students went to a local lube shop and learned how to change the oil in a car and exactly when and why it is necessary.

Engine Tune-up
Students visited another shop and discovered what it means to get a tune-up. D'Arcy recollects, "Back in the old days you used to be able to do your own tune-ups. It was so simple, you'd just buy all the parts for $8, put them on yourself and you were done! Now it's $300 and it's all computerized. But I still wanted the kids to know what a tune-up is and why they need to have it done. I wanted them to be able to hear what it sounds like when the timing is off, or what it means when the oil light goes on, and when you should pull over. I want them to know about the safe running of a car along with all the rules of the road and the actual act of driving. The engine is an important part of that."

D'Arcy added that knowledge about tires is also indispensable. "You need to know how much tread is left, how many pounds of air to put in, what rotating tires is, how brushing against a curb could throw them out of alignment. If they'd balanced their tires they may have gotten another 5,000 miles out of them. Nobody teaches kids that!"

On the last two days of the class each student changed the oil and rotated the tires on his or her parent's car. "We were going to change the brake pads, too," says D'Arcy, "but no one's car needed it done." She assured me, though, that each student demonstrated competence in taking off the brake shoes and identifying how the pads would have been changed if needed.

"So all the students can do at least these three things. With new cars today and the computerization of everything, there isn't much more you can do without possibly creating a bigger problem. The most important thing is that the kids are in the position that if they were driving down the road they would understand if there was a problem coming up. They're also not likely to be 'taken' when purchasing maintenance services because they have an idea about what's going on and what average prices for maintenance should be."

Purchasing a Vehicle
Eventually, each student will probably buy a car. D'Arcy invited a salesperson from Ocean Chevrolet to come to campus and talk about what buying a car entails. He introduced the blue book, talked about interest rates and showed them contracts. The students now believe they won't have any surprises when they walk into a dealership. Insurance

Everyone needs insurance. D'Arcy wanted these young drivers to know how to shop for insurance when it came time for them to do so. Students plaintively asked the visiting insurance agent why payments are so high for their age group. He explained that they'd be paying premium rates until they had some solid miles under their belts because statistics show that more accidents are caused by inexperienced drivers. They misjudge distances, overcorrect while turning to avoid oncoming obstacles, and are more easily distracted than more experienced drivers.

D'Arcy feels confident after the three week training course that her students are ready to take on the multitude of responsibilties of owning and driving a car. Parents of the Merit students feel their kids have heard the course's messages loud and clear. They wanted their kids to get a real "heads up" regarding the seriousness of this undertaking and hearing real stories from real people gave them that. One parent said, "Kids just hear it differently when a CHP officer tells them, 'If you give a cop an attitude, he'll write you a ticket that'll put you away,' than if a parent tells them the same thing." D'Arcy recollects the dinner chats her family had when their daughter Nicole was going through the course. "We'd ask her 'What did you learn today?' And she'd share the stories she'd heard with us. I know she was soaking it up."

The students feel they've received a priceless opportunity to learn things that their friends in other schools aren't receiving. They show real pride in the fact that they know how to change a car's oil and that they've put together an entire transmission. Says Lincoln, "It was something I'd never have the opportunity to do without this program." They are clearly changed as people after some of the trips they made and the people they spoke with. Garrett reported that "visiting made everything so real."

It's obvious these students are not overly anxious to get behind the wheel. They seem appropriately cautious and are moving forward with obtaining permits and taking the tests at a different pace than your average teen. One student even said she'd had a change of heart about riding with a certain friend she'd decided was too reckless a driver.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic response came from the community members of auto shops, hospitals and law enforcement agencies, etc. who were asked to volunteer their time to teach the Merit students. D'Arcy claims that virtually each and every one of them, regardless of their decision to participate in the program, said the same thing: "It's about time someone taught student drivers this stuff."

Jennifer Chinn is the co-Editor/Publisher of Growing Up in Santa Cruz.

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"Hillside Near Santa Cruz" background photo © Copyright 2006 Steve Pinker. Used with Permission.
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