Hayden Hutzell, 17, of Ellicott City, who has her driver's… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
"Oh, no," groaned 17-year-old Hayden Hutzell, as the car she was driving thumped over yet another neon orange traffic cone.
By the time she finished her ride of a few hundred yards in the Sunday afternoon sun, the Ellicott City teenager had slowly rolled the car over more lane-marking cones than she could remember, weaving in and out of makeshift lanes she could barely detect. She was unable to reply to her police officer-instructor's simple question of how many months ago she got her driver's license.
Hayden was doing a simulation of drunken driving. She wore goggles that replicated the disorientation of driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.25 percent — more than three times the 0.08 percent that equates to drunken driving under state law.
"This makes me feel so dizzy," Hayden said in between Officer Shane Stevenson's demands that she tell him how long she had had a license.
"I tried to focus. I was trying to answer his questions. But I couldn't focus on what I was doing," Hayden said, after acknowledging that her driving performance was "just awful."
The exercise was one of several in "Driving Skills for Life," a free program that aims to teach young drivers how to handle emergency lane changes and give them firsthand appreciation of the hazards of driving while distracted or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The Ford Motor Co. Fund, in partnership with the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Maryland State Highway Administration's Highway Safety Office, ran the at-capacity behind-the-wheel class four times over the weekend on a closed course in Sykesville where law enforcement personnel learn driving skills.
Ford, with the governors group, runs the safety program in about 10 locations a year across the country. The instructors have backgrounds in auto racing, lending the training an air of authority on dangerous driving.
"Two things mess with your brain: alcohol and being 17," instructor Mike Speck told the parents and teenagers.
The final session drew about 70 teenagers from around Maryland and nearby states. Many were brought there at the insistence of parents who said hands-on lessons from professionals would sink in better than their own reminders of no-texting while driving. Besides, some parents said, skills such as how to control a spinning vehicle are not meant to be practiced on traffic-laden local roads.
Officials said that in Maryland, where the program kicked off National Teen Driver Safety Week, 30 people are injured every day because of the actions of young drivers, many of whom are distracted or inexperienced.
"I just thought that, you know what, this is the place to learn," Laurie Benzing, whose 16-year-old daughter Rachel accompanied Hayden, said as she stood with adults watching youths poorly maneuver cars (all — what else — Fords) through a winding course while scrolling through cell phone contact lists, reading maps, fiddling with the radio and the like.
The high-pitched squeal of tires carried throughout the site, as Mustang after Mustang, their rear axles altered so the car would skid in a turn, spun out on the course.
Teens acknowleded, some reluctantly, that the training was an eye-opener.
"It was helpful to know … to be able to practice how driving is and experience things I wouldn't be able to do on the road. The guy had me texting while driving — I completely ran out of the lanes," said Briana Prettyman, 16, of Severna Park. Behind her, adults who tried on the drunken-driving goggles stumbled into each other.
Larry Lint of Silver Spring said he could tell that his 16-year-old son, Duncan, was gaining driving skills, and Duncan acknowledged that this practice was helpful.
"You know that old adage: Every teenager knows everything? Now they're experiencing something else and they are thinking, 'Maybe there's something to it,' " Lint said.
Police said programs such as this complement the basic driver education.
"I almost wish they would make it mandatory," said Sykesville Police Sgt. John Kilgore, who led the anti-drunken-driving program.