CAN’T GET IN A CLASS? ITEMS TEACH YOUNG DRIVERS From computer programs to behind-the-wheel safety courses, there are many ways to help teens learn

During the summer, kids usually don’t even look at the calendar until August or September, when courses begin again. This year, however, hopeful teen-age drivers are keeping an eye on the calendar so they can enroll in driver education and training before the Brady-Jared Teen Driver Safety Act becomes law on July 1, imposing stricter rules on newly licensed drivers.

Since the traditional driving schools are packed, however, here are some aids to make getting behind the wheel a little easier.

Computer simulation: While no affordable computer scenario could ever replicate the skin-prickling, hair-raising conditions of actual driving, these programs encourage new drivers to think ahead. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and Electronic Learning Facilitators released “driver-ZED” ($27.95) CD in March. Through windshield, rear-view and side-mirror perspectives, teens learn to scan, spot, act and drive in full-motion video. Disadvantage: The vehicle needed to power “driver-ZED” needs a Pentium 90 with an MPEG1 video accelerator card, or a Pentium 200 with an MMX or better and a 2MB graphics card with video acceleration, and 10MB hard disk space. It may have a grainy, stuttering image. AAAFTS, 800-377-8999 or www.aaafts.org. Add a video accelerator card for a $149.95 package price.

Sierra Education’s “Driver’s Education ’98” ($40) goes further with full driver’s education and driver simulation, down to seat belts and signaling. In fact, the 30-day guarantee refunds your money if you don’t pass the written test. The full-motion video, which is much smoother than “driver-ZED, ” needs a Pentium, Windows and 50 MB free hard disk space. While you can use keyboard shortcuts, the steering wheel and pedals make the simulation more lifelike. By the way, if you crash, your instructor, Ed, kicks you out of Virtual City. Sierra Direct, 800-757-7707. Add Thrustmaster Grand Prix 1 steering wheel for a $75 package price.

Highway Safety Course: Invest $385 to skid in a Mitsubishi Galant. The five-hour course prepares drivers for horrific highway conditions, such as constant rain. Russell Racing School, 29305 Arnold Drive, Sonoma at Sears Point Raceway (Highways 4 and 121), 707-939-7600, www.russellracing.com.

Video: Remember “Red Asphalt”? “The Last Prom”? No video library would be legitimate without these scare classics. Best of all, if you send in a blank VHS tape, the California Highway Patrol will dub these films for you. Request a catalog for all of the CHP’s goodies. CHP, 3500 Reed Ave., West Sacramento, CA 95605, 916-372-5620.

Bumper sticker: Parents who find it hard to let go can slap the equivalent of a “How’s my driving?” bumper stickers on their teens’ vehicles. The Steering Committee (888-997-8337, www.steeringcommittee.com) figures if reckless truckers can be subdued, so can teens. It’s a trade-off between preserving dignity and autonomy to preserving flesh and blood. Still, despite the scarlet letter status, nothing beats accountability. No one returned the two messages we left, however, so who knows if the bumper sticker ends up being like those fake security alarm stickers?

This article originally appeared on the Contra Costa Times

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