Nearly 400 teens drove around the pavement of neighboring Firebird International Raceway last week, texting while driving, spinning out in Mustangs and trying to navigate around orange cones as if they were “under the influence.”

Part of the two-day, Ford Driving Skills for Life class, high school students from the East Valley, including the Ahwatukee Foothills, learned how to handle dangerous situations while on the road.

In four different stations, students learned vehicle handling, hazard recognition, speed and space management, and what it looks like to drive impaired.

“We don’t teach them standard driving like the rules of the road,” said lead driving instructor, Mike Speck. “We teach them what could happen.”

About a dozen students sat and listened to instructions at each of the stations Thursday morning before getting behind the wheels of either a Ford Mustang, Focus, or Escape.

After completing the second station where students have to make a quick and unexpected lane change, Desert Vista High School junior Ryan Gardener said he feels more confident about driving.

“It was weird because I’m not used to that, but it was fun,” Gardener said.

After learning that car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers ages 16 to 19, most of the teens get an eye-opening experience through the class, Speck said.

Fellow Desert Vista student, Allison Beauchamp, a sophomore, said she loves driving, but now feels more prepared.

“I feel like if I ever have trouble on the road, I can control it better than I would have before,” Beauchamp said.

After going through the first two stations, which are a bit smaller, the students go to one of the larger stations where they have to send a coherent text message while maneuvering the cars around sharp corners and lanes set off by cones.

In the final station, the students are given special goggles that shows them what driving at different levels of alcohol consumption looks like visually.

One of the more compelling tasks out of the four, Speck said he hopes that kids walk away from the class with a “healthy fear.”

“Fear can be a good thing, it’s what stops even us professional drivers from making mistakes,” Speck said. “It’s good to have a little bit of healthy respect for the car.”

The Ford Driving Skills for Life is a national program, and has served more than 6,000 teens in Arizona for the past five years.

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