When Haley Van Pelt's vehicle ran off Hardy McManus Road on July 22, she reacted the way many other drivers would -- she over-corrected.
Police say the 17-year-old Greenbrier High School senior jerked the steering wheel to the left to get her car back onto the road and lost control. The car spun around and slammed into a large pine tree.
Van Pelt is now recovering at Medical College of Georgia Hospital from injuries suffered in the crash.
"It is a panic-type situation, panic mode," said Don Brock, the owner of Brock's Driver Education School on Jimmie Dyess Parkway in Augusta, adding that running off the road can be scary. "They (drivers) have a tendency to jerk the wheel. But when you jerk the wheel, that throws the car into a frenzy."
Such reactions are common, said Columbia County Sheriff's Office Staff Sgt. Ray Childress, who oversees the Traffic Unit.
In about 90 percent of the single-vehicle wrecks to which sheriff's deputies respond, over-correcting is a factor, he said. Childress said it is easy for deputies investigating crashes to spot the signs of over-correcting: marks on the roadside where the car went off, and yaw marks where the car rotated back across the road.
"Whenever we see the big arcing yaw marks from one lane to the other, that is usually a tell-tale sign of what happened," Childress said.
Childress said many fatalities and serious injuries are from single-vehicle wrecks where the driver over-corrected. And one over-correction often leads to more over-corrections and then the driver losing control of the vehicle.
When a driver jerks the wheel to get back onto the road, he or she often swerves into the oncoming lane, panics and over-corrects again. Childress said that these reactions often lead to rollovers, spins or crashes into trees, embankments, culverts or other roadside dangers.
Rain and speed exacerbate already bad over-corrections, he said.
"The biggest reason (for over-correction) is inexperienced drivers," Childress said. "It is not just the kids. It is adults, too."
Many times, vehicles run off the road because drivers are distracted by cell phones, radios, passengers and other motorists, among other things, he said.
Childress said driver education is a big factor in preventing over-correction, especially in young drivers.
Brock said one reason many drivers, young or old, panic in such situations is that they've never experienced it.
"Most people do not know what the experience feels like. That's the key," Brock said.
When his students run off the road during a lesson, Brock said he often lets it happen to give them the experience in a controlled environment with a trained instructor in the car.
When they are on the road alone, Brock said, the young drivers are then a little more prepared and less likely to panic.
"We can only give them the theory of it (in the classroom)," Brock said. "But at least they have some idea of it in that theory."
Brock said during the 30 hours his students spend in the classroom, they learn a lot of defensive driving techniques, including how to handle running off the road.
He hopes that, armed with information about what to expect, the students won't panic if they find themselves in some of the potentially dangerous situations.
If the car does run off the side of the road, Brock said, "you've got to remain calm" to regain control of the vehicle.
Childress and Brock agree that drivers should avoid slamming on the brakes. Simply let off the gas and gradually decelerate to a manageable speed, then slowly steer the car back onto the road.
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