By on August 3, 2013

Green Skid Monster Camry

The vehicle pictured above is called the “Skid Monster.” It’s late model Toyota Camry with casters attached to the rear that cause the car to handle the way you’d expect a Toyota Camry with casters instead of wheels to handle. Larry S. Roberts, the duly elected Fayette County Attorney in Lexington, KY, would like to teach your children how to tame it.

The state of driver’s education in this country is generally considered to be abysmal. One by one school districts across the country have dropped driver’s ed from their curriculums, sacrificed along with the majority of vo- tech classes on the altar of common core standards, No Child Left Behind, and efforts to “teach to the test.” Lexington hasn’t had driver’s ed in the public schools in decades. The cost of private instruction can be prohibitive. Kentucky Driving School, which operates out of the Louisville area, charges $65 an hour for instruction to teach the basics of automotive operation. Small wonder, then, that most parents opt to do it themselves. Whether or not they are good drivers themselves doesn’t much matter.

Larry Roberts has been the Fayette County Attorney, which makes him the chief prosecutor in the lower District Courts, since 2006. The idea for the Fayette County Attorney Driver Education Program was hatched in 2010 and the first class was in 2011. Over 350 students have made it through the program so far.

Temporary building currently houses the program. Funding for a permanent building is being sought.
Temporary building currently houses the program. Funding for a permanent building is being sought.

Talk to Larry about the program for a few minutes and it becomes pretty clear that this is a true labor of love for him and not just a feel- good public relations stunt to get him through the next election. A lot of thought has gone into the program, particularly with an eye towards keeping it viable after he leaves office. The biggest component of that vision is how the program is funded. Unlike most training programs sponsored by a government agency, this program runs primarily on private as opposed to public dollars. In the brave, new world of fiscal responsibility forced on all levels of government by the 2008 economic meltdown dedicated funding streams of tax dollars for new initiatives are all but impossible to get and grants from the Federal or state governments dry up almost as soon as they are given. A 501(c) 3 non- profit was set up in order to maximize charitable donations to fund the project.

Group of students practicing basic car control while awaiting the skid monster. Corporate sponsorship makes the program work.
Group of students practicing basic car control on the edge of the pad while awaiting the skid monster. Corporate sponsorship makes the program work.

The cars are donated by the area’s largest Toyota dealer. The wiring for the doublewide portable classroom that currently houses the project was donated by a local contractor. An asphalt driving pad owned by the city of Lexington was used early on, but numerous scheduling conflicts with various city agencies made it a hassle. A new dedicated pad was built  next to the old pad using donated material and labor. Straight corporate sponsorships of cash are accepted as well, with insurance giant State Farm being one of the largest contributors.

So what is the program and what makes it different from the public school driver’s ed classes of old? First of all, it is not a basic driver’s course. Your kid won’t be taught how to parallel park or make a 3- point turn. Participants are required to have either their driver’s license or their learner’s permit coupled with a minimum of 20 hours of driving instruction logged into their Kentucky Driving Manual. A minimum amount of driving experience is necessary because as Billy Fryer, the chief instructor, put it to me “If you put a kid who’s never driven a car behind the wheel of the skid monster and yanked it out from under him, he’d never drive again.”

The fundamental flaw in driver’s education as it is normally done, either by parents or professional instructors, is that it can’t really teach a kid what to do when control is lost. You can tell a novice driver that he should “turn the steering wheel in the direction that the back of the vehicle is skidding,” as the Kentucky Driving Manual advises. Until someone actually feels the rear wheels start to come around in an attempt to meet their front counterparts, it’s all just words on a page.

Instructor Brett Goode goes over homework from the previous evening before the class adjourns to the pad.
Instructor Brett Goode goes over homework from the previous evening before the class adjourns to the pad.

In order to learn, the kids need to drive. And drive they do. The course is 20 hours, spread out in four-hour blocks over five days. About 5 hours are spent in the classroom. The rest of the time, the kids are divided up into groups of three spread out into the skid monster and two regular cars in which they practice basic vehicle control while awaiting their turn in the barrel. Class size is limited to nine participants in order to help maximize the amount of time behind the wheel for each student.

The skid monster is clearly the star of the show. It’s operation is fiendishly simple. The student starts off gently in a straight line. Gentle inputs from the steering wheel will turn the car without drama. The instructor, seated in the front passenger seat, simply reaches over and gives the wheel a solid yank, which causes the rear end to step out. Panic braking or wild swings of the wheel in an effort to counter steer by the novice driver make it worse. However, with practice they learn how to control the skid by only dialing in the amount of steering they need to in order to pull out. As the week progresses, they learn how to handle the movement in curves and while avoiding obstacles. By the end of the course they are able to run a slalom in the skid monster.

Green Skid Monster Camry 2

On public roads there’s no way to allow a novice to learn by doing when it comes to skid recovery. What’s needed is a 5 acre asphalt pad built on top of a landfill, with plenty of empty space on three sides of it for a teenager to spin a Camry into the weeds. (The fourth side is occupied by metal bleachers, but they sit empty until graduation on the last day of the five-day course. Hopefully, the kids have all mastered the skid monster before their loved ones are quite literally placed in the line of fire.)

In addition to the 20 hours of instruction time, there’s an additional 9- 10 hours of homework over the course of the week. On the third day much of the classroom time is spent on texting while driving. The kids take their phones and try to text one another while operating a driving simulator. The course starts off at low speeds and in light traffic, but the instructors dial up the speed and obstacles as the kids continue to try to text. As with the skid monster the point is to show the kids why texting and driving isn’t compatible instead of just talking about it.

Cost of the program is a mere $200 per pupil, ridiculously cheap compared to other driving schools. Reliance on charitable contributions for the vast majority of the operating budget and the fact that the school is not for profit keeps that cost down, but Roberts feels that the participants (or, rather, their parents) should pay something to have skin in the game. Most of the kids start the program somewhat sullen and grumpy at having to take the course, particularly during the summer, but they get interested quickly and remain so through the course. So far only one participant has had to be dismissed. The program is limited to Kentucky residents, but is open to student drivers from outside of Fayette County at the same rate as Fayette County residents.

The immediate future of the program is bright, but the long-term future of the program is murky. As long as Mr. Roberts remains in his position the program will have in advocate. His long-term goal would be to have the public school system take it over. On the one hand the powers that be in the school system have expressed interest and tentative plans for a new high school include a driving pad.

On the other hand, the schools haven’t been particularly interested in adopting what parts of the program they could today. During the winter months, when early darkness prohibits the use of the skid pad, Billy Fryer has tried with little success to bring the simulators into the schools in order to let more kids experience the texting while driving portion of the course. The cost is free and all he asks of the schools is a place to put the simulators and help scheduling the kids to participate in groups of 14 at a time. He’s had very few takers.

Hopefully someone will pick p the torch after Mr. Roberts leaves office. For now there’s a very reasonably priced program that will actually teach a young driver how to control a car in an emergency situation that’s begging to be adopted, copied, and stolen for the benefit of novice drivers across the country. It’s a program my kid will be enrolled in when she gets her permit in a couple of years and I encourage others to do the same.

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34 Comments on “Some Kind of Skid Monster...”


  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    A big thumbs up to Detective Hester for the article and also to Attorney Roberts for innovation! So refreshing to see what I presume is a county DA’s office go above and beyond for the community. Our county’s office is generally filled with political hacks and is noted for its general doucebaggery (as is the county gov’t at large).

    I suggest a slimmed down course for existing licensed drivers (weekend?) and make it open to anyone. Certainly couldn’t hurt from a tuition/donation standpoint.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      *douche

    • 0 avatar
      David Hester

      They have a slimmed down program that they’ve made available to various local corporations and organizations, but there haven’t been a lot of takers. 40 or so of our officers have done it and hopefully the rest of us will as well at some point.

      Other than lack of interest, the next biggest problem is that adults (i.e., experienced drivers) make lousy students. Too many bad habits ingrained over too many years.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I admire this man’s efforts, but in the face of a non-existent driver’s ed program I would think his efforts might be better spent teaching non-licensed drivers the basics before getting involved with more advanced driving techniques.

    Eliminating driver’s ed programs from school curriculums has got to be the most short-sighted, asinine decisions that any community has ever made to cut costs. Teaching a kid math may land him a job someday, but teaching a kid how to properly drive a car might save his life

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Also a small typo in the last paragraph: “pick p the torch”

  • avatar

    The 2014 Toyota Camry with the optional casters is a far more sporty and “fun to drive” car than the Lamborghini Aventador and the Ferarrari F430.

    With the dramatic reduction in weight, the car manages 0-60 in 3 seconds and completes the quarter mile in 9.8 seconds.

    The slalom was completed in 7 seconds and we managed a class record of 1.6 G’s on the skidpad.

    This is the car to buy in 2014.

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    Years ago the “Bertil Roos School of Motor Racing” in the Poconos had a similar set-up on a Saab they used in their training. He had modified the suspension of the vehicle retaining the standard wheels.

    • 0 avatar
      olddavid

      Same thing here in Portland at PIR. I forget what the company was called, but the principal was a guy named Dane Pittaresi. Retained the standard wheels and altered the balance with a lift and caster system. Got the one afternoon class from my young well-meaning son for Father’s Day. Yes, son, you can teach an old dog new tricks. But, I’m on the side of expanding Driver’s Ed, and making advanced techniques self-sustaining. Much like the three R’s, if you cannot read to start with, a copy of War and Peace is superfluous.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        “Much like the three R’s, if you cannot read to start with, a copy of War and Peace is superfluous.”

        True enough. Where I live, a lot of local yokels, no doubt “taught” to drive by their parents, fail to grasp basic concepts such as:
        -When and when not to pull out from a stop sign or driveway
        -When pulling out into and/or in the path of fast traffic, accelerate to a speed that matches that traffic
        -The shoulder (and the bike lane when one is marked) is not a driving lane

        The local news regularly reports on single vehicle crashes and multi-vehicle wrecks where the driver at fault was driving on a suspended or revoked license. Hmmm…

        Regardless, Mr. Roberts and his folks deserve great credit and support for making a difference!

  • avatar
    Flybrian

    Awesome. Combine that with a semester of Practical Auto Shop 101 that imbues a rudimentary knowledge of basic systems (cooling, braking, etc) and we’re getting somewhere.

    I remember as new drivers, my high school buddy and I took his Tracker out to an abandoned mall parking lot and screwed around with it. In the rain. At night. Almost got it up on two wheels once, but it taught us about its limits and control. Probably wasn’t the wisest way to learn, but learn we did.

    For a nation that for all practical purposes gave rise to the dominance of the car and whose passion for it and freedom of access to it remains unrivaled, we sure do a good job of teaching new drivers to be ambivalent towards it.

  • avatar
    NMGOM

    I like it. But plead ignorance. Wouldn’t this car behave a little bit like RWD car in ice??

    ————-

    • 0 avatar
      08Suzuki

      That’s actually the point, to teach what to do when your car is no longer in a controlled scenario.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m not sure it’s the best way, still. The steering/throttle aspect of FWD and RWD being so different, there’s still a disconnect between reality and just taming oversteer.

        • 0 avatar
          shaker

          That’s a good point. FWD cars (without electronic nannies) lose steering if over-throttled or over-braked, and you need mastery of the rotational state of the front tires to drive safely – hope they teach that as well.
          If not, at least the students will be well prepared for careers as bus/truck drivers, as education funding withers away.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            Traction nannies are great, but they won’t save you in every instance. Supplementing your drifting skills with traction nannies is a whole lot better. Learning advanced car control isn’t difficult and should be considered basic training. But the most important thing to learn is not to panic.

        • 0 avatar
          carlisimo

          This isn’t about drifting, it’s about reality. These kids are likely to drive cars like the Camry, and at some point they’ll hit a patch of ice, or brake too hard and lose the rear. This practice will help them recover.

  • avatar
    stevelyon

    I volunteer with the Street Survival program for teenagers, and it’s amazing to see how much the kids improve over the course of the day. In the morning, they all suck – and I mean SUCK. But as the day goes on, you can see them catch on, and by the end of the day, you no longer fear the idea of sharing the road with them on the way home.

    http://streetsurvival.org

    Fantastic class, with schools all over the country, and only $75.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    This is a great story and great program.

    Here in Seattle the local Porsche Club puts on a driver skills/skid school once a month through the year for just $55 for a full day. It’s a bargain, and my daughter will go through it when she gets her license

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    They shut down our drivers ed classes for the last five years I taught. Also deleted my practical industrial technology classes and they do teach the test. Once upon a time school districts made those decisions for better or for worse but everyone is held to the federal standards now because of federal dollars. Teaching the test is where it’s at now for sure. I don’t think this is an improvement.

    Glad someone is doing something constructive.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      It’s quite simple. Minds that are taught the arts, civics, and critical thinking are much harder to control. Teach a generation to click the right circle with the mouse, and it makes things much easier.

      • 0 avatar
        carlisimo

        I don’t disagree, but when it comes to schools I think it’s just a matter of resources…

        • 0 avatar
          ClutchCarGo

          Exactly. Here’s a little test for your community: Is there a nicer municipal building around than your worst school? If so, all of your talk of the importance of education is just empty rhetoric. As long as City Hall and the police station get more resources than the least of your schools, you’re just paying lip service to education.

  • avatar
    chug

    In the Washington,DC area, Car Guys in MD has been offering its Decisive Driving School for a long time:
    http://decisivedriving.com/

    Highly recommended.

    My youngest child went through Car Guys one-day program as part of her driving contract with me (DrivingContract.com – which included a minimum of 5,000 miles of behind the wheel driving with me, in all kinds of weather, all kinds of traffic, all kinds of roads, all the highways and bad intersections in the DC area she would encounter, and having her demonstrate the 2-second rule out loud – repeatedly – until it took) before she got my permission to get her driver license. That took about 18 months. Now I can sleep while she drives.

  • avatar
    Prado

    How times have changed since I learned to drive in the mid 80’s. Back then, the ‘skid monster’ was in every 16 year old’s head, and was intentionally released, and then tamed. Mastery of the beast! Nothing to fear at all … except for your parents when the beast occasionally won and you had to explain the damage.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Jaeger

      No kidding. We used to do donuts and powerslides in empty parking lots at first sign of snow. Not to mention spirited driving on unpaved country roads where these types of skills needed to be mastered early on. I guess if putting caster wheels on a Camry is the only way to teach kids these days it’s a worthwhile exercise.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yup me and most of my buddies set out to master the art of hanging out the rear end in our first cars. I managed to never have to explain anything to my parents. My best friend on the other hand had it get away from him one time and did a bit of damage to his car. His dad took the keys. Thankfully his car was an Olds Starfire that had the urethane nose and he just wrinkled one of the front fenders slightly. With lots of cuts and scrapes we managed to get that fender off and carefully worked it back into shape with a rubber mallet and a couple of blocks of wood. Once bolted back in place, the nose returned to its proper shape and it didn’t look bad at all and then his dad gave him back his keys. Of course his dad didn’t tell him that he would give him the keys back once he fixed it and we didn’t tackle the job until a while after the wreck.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Im gonna catch a lot of heat for this, but honestly, is learning how to get out of a spinout even a relevant skill anymore?

    Put it like this… would you rather have a kid who knows how to get out of a skid, or a kid who doesn’t text and drive EVER? Single vehicle accidents are down and falling despite America’s terrible driver’s ed system. If we fostered a culture of focused driving we could eliminate many more REAL problems. Most people will never enter a skid, and if they do get into an accident it will be something like someone running a red light or crossing their path to make a left- i.e. accidents no amount of driving skill could avoid. You get rid of drunk drivers, uninsured/unlicensed drivers and distracted drivers, the roads will be a million times safer overnight with no change in training.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      You can hope you never get into a skid or you can take a proactive approach. You may need to put yourself into a skid to avoid an accident. And you may need to put yourself into another skid to get back on the road.

      The problem is that untrained or unskilled drivers ‘over correct’ oversteer or understeer. And or, they panic. You see skid marks from spinouts, on the highway all the time, but if you look closely, you’ll see that the skid started from small oscillations increasing to a full spinout.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      With the fact that it is hard to find a RWD car it is likely a little less relevant. However there are lots of places that get snow and ice and the rear end coming around can still happen particularly if you’ve got a FWD and put chains on it or you ignore the recommendation to put traction tires on all 4 corners.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        FWDs may be optimal for accelerating on slippery surfaces, but can just as easily get into an understeer, oversteer or four wheel drift situation. And not just in slippery conditions. It may not be the driver’s own fault for getting into a skid, but being clueless on how to recover it will lead to the same consequences.

  • avatar
    PaulyG

    Another alternative is take your newly minted driver to an autocross event. My daughter really got the feel of the car at the limits there.

  • avatar
    Eyeflyistheeye

    I know politics will be the bane of TTAC, but I think I shall vote for Larry S. Roberts if the opportunity arises just because of this.


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