Focused on safety
Monday, December 31, 2012
With wheels-on-the-ground training for nearly 38,000 private and professional drivers each year, the Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center (MHSRC) carries out its mission to reduce traffic accidents and the human trauma they cause.
In 1974 the St. Cloud State facility, then known as the Minnesota Highway Safety Center, opened and quickly became the state’s premier provider of advanced training skills for law enforcement and other emergency responders. Over the years the center has extended its education options to other segments of the population, including senior drivers and, most recently, teen drivers.
For each of its target markets, the center — a self-sustaining arm of the University’s Center for Continuing Studies — provides drivers the opportunity to experience real-life scenarios in a controlled environment with training that’s tailored to their unique needs.
For drivers involved in law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, one-day training courses act largely as a refresher in advanced driving techniques related to their profession.
“The one thing these professional responders do each day is drive, so it makes sense we would reinforce that part of their jobs with skills-based training,” said Larry Nadeau ’89, the MHSRC director of outreach. “We give them practical training in applying safety skills to activities such as pursuit of suspects, collision avoidance, skid control and light and siren use.”
The center also offers specialty classes, including training for law enforcement in “pursuit intervention.”
“What we see officers doing in pursuit on television can seem very simple, but it’s a skill that’s developed through many hours of classroom and skills training at our facility,” Nadeau said.
This year the center has resumed specialized driver and roadway scene safety training for firefighters. MHSRC is a recognized provider of Advanced Fire Apparatus Driver Training by the Minnesota Board of Fire Training and Education.
One of the center’s most successful programs has been the Driver Improvement Program for senior drivers 55 and older. “Keeping senior drivers safe is a critical issue,” Nadeau said. “By 2025 one in five drivers will be over 65.”
The Driver Improvement Program benefits from a longtime partnership with American Automobile Association (AAA) which provides learning materials and the use of its well-known name in return for royalties and advertising resources.
Drivers who take the two-session course save an estimated $100 a year on insurance rates, but the benefits of the course go far beyond reduced insurance premiums.
“Seniors’ quality of life really is affected by the ability to drive,” said Gail Weinholzer, public relations director for AAA Minnesota-Iowa. “Maintaining their ability to be safe drivers benefits them personally and benefits society as a whole.”
Just as seniors benefit from driver education that could save their lives, the newest MHSRC initiative, the Teen Driver Crash Avoidance Program, has the potential to alter the grim fatality statistics related to young drivers.
Traffic crashes are the leading killer of Minnesota teens ages 15-19. In 2011, teen drivers were involved in 12,139 crashes that resulted in 39 deaths and 3,921 injuries.
The initial Teen Driver Crash Avoidance Program sessions Aug. 11 and 12 sold out. Co-sponsored by the Minnesota Highway Safety Association, the Governor’s Highway Safety Association and Ford Motor Company, the two classes trained 219 teens and 211 parents at no cost to participants. Sessions also were offered in September and November.
“It’s a challenge to find funding sources to continue this initiative,” Nadeau said. “We’d like to make this training affordable for young drivers and their families.” After a local State Farm Insurance agent told his corporate office about the Teen Driver Crash Avoidance program, the company contributed $2,500 to continue these efforts.
“The exciting thing was we provide young drivers skills-based training that directly targets high-risk factors most likely to cause accidents,” Nadeau said. “Teens drive specially-equipped vehicles on a closed road course under the supervision of professional instructors. The course takes them through scenarios aimed at improving crucial safe driving skills such as speed selection, obstacle avoidance, skid control, off-road recovery and in-car distractions.”
Accident prevention training may be most important for teens who live in outstate Minnesota, Nadeau said. “Crashes tend to be more severe in rural settings, and there tends to be less compliance with seat belt usage.”
What’s next for the Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center? “We continue to look at developing new ways to help the average citizen and private fleets to improve driving skills and prevent accidents,” Nadeau said.