DALY CITY -- The ink still fresh on their learner's permits, the teens got inside their cars, revved them up and fishtailed on wet asphalt. A hundred yards away, other newbie drivers had one hand on the wheel while banging out text messages.

It was enough to make a parent of a teen driver strongly consider hiding the family car keys and start stockpiling bus passes.

But in nearly every case, the crazy driving on Saturday was actually the parents' idea. Their teens were pushed into the hazardous driving scenarios as part of a seminar designed to give nascent drivers literal hands-on lessons in defensive driving and the pratfalls of distractions like smartphones.

"I wish we had this stuff when we were kids," said Mark Villarreal of Sacramento, a former San Jose resident and the father of Aleah, 16. "It makes me feel at ease knowing she's learning these skills and practicing them."

The program had particular resonance in the wake of Wednesday's crash in South San Jose where two 17-year-old drivers were arrested after a purported street race on Leigh Avenue that ended with one of the cars plowing through a house, seriously injuring a 40-year-old mother. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, car crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens.


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The Bridgestone tire company put on the free clinic, which travels around the country and puts drivers up to the age of 21 behind the wheel of brand-new BMW sedans to learn skills like steering out of skids and properly using anti-lock brakes to avoid road hazards. On Saturday, the lessons were held in the vast parking lot of the Cow Palace, dotted with hundreds of cones to form impromptu obstacle courses while a water truck kept strategic patches nice and slick.

One of the more peculiar features of the three-hour workshop was a tight, winding course that included hairpin turns akin to those on San Francisco's Lombard Street. Driving golf carts, the teens were told to navigate the turns while trying to send a text.

Predictably, several plastic cones were flattened, even when the youths were given a second go-round without their phones.

"It was pretty hard. Before I knew it, I was hitting all the cones," Aleah said. "People always tell you texting and driving isn't good. Until you try it, you don't see what they mean. You have to take everything seriously no matter how easy it looks."

April, by the way, also happens to be National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Saturday's practical lessons were paired with classroom sessions, and much of the instructions came from professional drivers, some of whom drive stunt cars for Hollywood films.

Among them was Dominic Cicero, a Portland-based race and stunt driver who coached the teens in negotiating a skid by steering out of it instead of fixating on the car's skid path.

"We want them to focus down the road," Cicero said. "After a few laps they feel comfortable. It's good to put them in this situation in a safe place."

In addition, the exercise gave eager young drivers an excuse to put the pedal to the metal and spin a car around. Radeen Shemirani, a 15-year-old San Ramon resident who before Saturday boasted a wealth of go-cart racing experience but had driven a car for only three hours, relished the chance to practice defensive driving in an environment more forgiving than real traffic.

"You won't have this opportunity on the road, so you go all out and have fun doing it," Radeen said. "It was definitely a shock to me at first. Now if I'm driving by myself, I know exactly what to do. Without this, I would have driven differently out there on the road."

The experience gave his mother, Arezoo Shemirani, a little bit more confidence as she completes the rest of Radeen's driving education. Her elder daughter took part in the workshop last year.

"It's wonderful. I hope they keep up with it," she said of Bridgestone's program. "More teens should join."

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
For more information on the Bridgestone Teens Drive Smart Experience, go to www.teensdrivesmarttour.com.