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Driving Ambition

StreetSmart academy fuels its instruction with plenty of premium amenities.

Some things about learning to drive remain immutable.

At StreetSmart Driving Academy, nervous, white-knuckled 16-year-olds still brake with a lurch and take turns too wide.

Little else, though, is typical at this Bryn Mawr driving school.

Students learn to navigate the Main Line in sleek, blue Audi A4s. Instructors are off-duty cops in smart polos. (Call them coaches, please.) Classes allow time for simulators and field trips.

Oh, and unlike those high-school lessons taught in a sweaty classroom, no one has to watch a single boring how-to-drive video.

StreetSmart, which entered the market two years ago, has put an SUV's worth of premium into drivers' ed.

That starts with the leather-interior cars that have $1,000-plus in detailing (no cheesy nameplate stuck on top).

The use of off-duty officers, mostly from the local Lower Merion police force, gives credence to the school's emphasis on expert instruction; plus, the teens think it's way cool. And the mod classroom - exposed-brick wall, chic lights, cafe-style glass-and-chrome tables - only adds to the school's refined image.

But this isn't just about packaging, says owner Meg Kramer.

"Everything about driving has changed," says the 42-year-old former pharmaceutical marketing exec turned drivers' ed instructor and businesswoman.

Roads are more congested, cars are bigger, and drivers are more distracted than a generation ago. Kramer wanted to develop a program that not only addressed those conditions but also kept teens' attention (read: fun) and maybe changed some on-the-road behaviors along the way.

In presentations to area high schools, Kramer emphasizes the dangers of driving for American teens. Each year, about 6,000 lose their lives and more than 300,000 are injured in car accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the first year of licensure, 35 percent of 16-year-old drivers will have an accident, she says, citing "If we want to change this data," says Kramer, "we have to change how we train them."

Truth be told, the St. David's mother was worried that her own two girls, ages 13 and 11, would have to take lessons from some stranger in a tin-can car, much as she did. "I just knew I wanted something better for my girls," she says.

At StreetSmart, that includes the use of beer goggles (glasses that blur vision to illustrate the effect of alcohol on a person's motor skills), virtual-driver simulators that encourage good habits under difficult weather and traffic conditions, and visits to the Lower Merion police station to see DUI processing, Bryn Mawr Hospital to hear about brain or spinal-cord injuries, and a school for truck drivers. At the last stop, each student gets to hop into the cab of an 18-wheeler and see exactly what the driver can see - and not see - from that perch.

And those Audis aren't for show, Kramer says. The A4 is a top safety pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Of course, students spend time on the road. "I could take a greenhorn and teach him to pass that [driving] test in a heartbeat," said Lower Merion patrolman Rich Kramer (not related to the owner), who also is senior program director for StreetSmart. "That's not our interest. We want to teach them to pass the real-life streets."

All the bells and whistles come with a price tag: $795 for a basic package of eight classes and three driving lessons, or $1,820 for additional lessons and a collision-avoidance clinic.

The Mandels of Penn Valley were attracted to the school's comprehensive program and use of police officers. "We thought that was going to be a strong statement to learn the right habits from the beginning," said Heidi Mandel, whose son, David, 16, is a client.

Liz Rieman, 16, of Wallingford, gave the teen equivalent of a five-star review: "It's fun," she said. She especially enjoyed the road trip to Don Rosen Imports Audi and Porsche dealership in Conshohocken, where she got lessons on car maintenance and how to change a tire.

On this Saturday, the drivers' ed lesson is hands-on and crystal clear.

A 16-year-old negotiates virtual streets with beer goggles. Light snow falls in the on-screen town. He struggles to maneuver around a parked car, eventually smacking into a stop sign.

"You're only wearing a pair of goggles and you can barely see," police officer and coach Brian Layton says, looking over the teen's shoulder. "You would be locked up by now."