Christian Gornto looked excited when Blount County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Josh Blair ordered him to hop behind the wheel and back up a patrol car Saturday morning.
Seconds later, Gornto looked petrified when Blair screamed at him to stop and look out the window.
“Cut the wheel!” Blair barked. “Pull forward! Look behind you when you back up! These cones are here for a reason!”
Endless rows of orange cones represented the narrow roads and sharp turns of Blount County roads.
Several were crushed under Gornto’s wheels, a reminder of how easily accidents can become fatalities.
It was all part of BCSO’s teen driving class.
“These cones are the same size as a small child,” Blair explained as the 15-year-old Alcoa High School student stared at his carnage in horror.
“It was awkward,” Gornto said later. “It looked easy.”
The cones’ ragged condition told silent horror stories of just how many died brutal “deaths” in earlier classes.
Hesitation and panic are common even in experienced drivers, giving Blair, Administrative Lt. Chuck Garner and Deputies Pete Rivas and Brian Ailey an excellent starting point to talk about basic driving laws, defensive driving, evasive driving techniques and the rampant problem of distracted driving in the free class.
Students also learn how to safely reenter roadways if they skid off, Garner said.
“We try to do this once or twice a year,” Garner said. “We have 26 students this time, and it’s our biggest class ever.”
Peddling a “drunk buggie” also helps teens visualize the dangers of impaired driving.
“This is the same course our police academy recruits go through,”BCSO spokeswoman Marian O’Briant said.
Blair sounded more like a concerned father than a drill instructor as he marched up and down the lane, barking orders with a grim face.
They were doing exactly what he expected, he said later with a big grin.
“I think it’s going well,” Blair said. “We have a good array of driving levels. Our focus is on distracted driving. When we are in the cars with them we hit the sirens or the air horns to test how they react and we ask them, ‘How distracted were you?’ One of the girls heard the noise and almost jumped out of her seat.”
Garner said the classes also allow students who attend schools that have eliminated driver education to gain classroom experience.
Chris Chitwood carefully looked behind him as he backed up — a skill his mother began teaching him on his 15th birthday.
“She had me out there at 7:30 a.m. practicing,” Chitwood said.
On July 26, the William Blount High School student will get his learner’s permit for his 16th birthday.
“I’ll be there at 9:30 a.m.,” Chitwood said. “I have younger brothers and they both play sports. It’s getting hard for my parents to get everyone everywhere they need to be. They are probably going to ask me to start running errands for them.”
Mackenzie Harrison laughed nervously as Gornto nailed the cones.
“I got my permit in January,” Harrison said. “I’m a little nervous but I think I’ll do OK. I just need to practice”
A few minutes later, the 15-year-old Heritage High student’s eyes were huge as she crushed a series of defenseless cones.
“I didn’t do too great,” Harrison said later.
Jace Vincent racked up a fictional vehicular homicide as he nailed a cone, then dragged it thumping to a gravelly death for about a quarter of a mile at a high speed before coming to rest behind Harrison.
The 15-year-old Maryville student looked embarrassed as he explained he didn’t know he hit anything.
“I felt good about my chances all the way through without hitting any cones,” Vincent said. “I slammed the gas pedal instead of the brakes.”