PALMETTO -- Flor Alvarez, a teacher at Nolan Middle School, saw a notice from the Manatee County School District about a free Safe Teen Driver program. She decided that it would be perfect for her daughter, Amy, 15, who attends Lakewood Ranch High and is about to get her driving permit.
Liz Rinehart saw the same notice on the Braden River High School website and thought it would be great for her 15-year-old son, Joshua, a Braden River High student.
The Alvarezes and Rineharts didn’t know exactly what to expect when they arrived Sunday at Andersen RacePark at 10101 U.S. 41 in Palmetto, but after spending the day with Safe Teen Driver founder Bruce Murakami, they believe their teens are now better equipped to take on the huge responsibility of driving in the text-message era.
Murakami, who started Safe Teen Driver after losing his wife and daughter to a car crash in 1998 involving a youthful driver, brought the program to Manatee County last November.
It has grown so fast that the next session, which is in September, is already nearly booked.
Teens, who must come with their parents, get lunch and the chance for a free spin in a 45-mph top speed go-kart. That’s the fun part. The work is seeing how they do driving a golf cart through a course of cones while distracted with a cell phone or while wearing DUI goggles that simulate what it is like to have a blood alcohol level over the legal limit.
The teens also learn how to “look forward” up the road and how to handle events that occur on the road, like sudden swerves.
On Sunday, there were about 40 teens and their parents in attendance.
“I think the exercises we did here today will make Amy aware of the situation out there,” said Amy’s dad, Jerry Alvarez.
“Bad things can happen in a second if kids aren’t prepared to make the right choices.”
The teens said they have a whole new appreciation for the term DUI after driving with the goggles on.
“I see two of you,” Amy Alvarez said.
“They had us trying to do all these things while we were driving,” said Joshua, explaining how the distracted driving course simulates either texting or talking on a cell phone while driving.
Murakami rents Andersen RacePark for one day each month. The $6,000 tab for rent, manpower, equipment and food is covered by Winters & Yonker, a personal injury law firm, Murakami said.
“Bill Winters believes that there have been too many teens who have been killed or killed others,” Murakami said. “It was time to do something to teach them about safe driving.”
Murakami insists on parents attending the free event because he believes parents don’t have the time to teach driving skills like they used to and he wants them to be involved.
“They believe it will never happen to them,” Murakami said, referring to the late night call from a police officer stating there has been an accident.
To find dates of upcoming events or to register a teen, go to www.safeteendriver.org or call (727) 420-7937.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.