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Old VW gets new life helping to train young drivers

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Ben Bennani, owner of A&A Car Rental in Costa Mesa, presses on a lever as student driver Hayley McClements, 17, of Fountain Valley steps on a pedal in a driving simulator inside a 1969 Volkswagen bus.
(KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot)

Hayley McClements tucks herself into the red crushed-cloth seat of a worn, blue 1969 Volkswagen bus, takes a deep breath and fires up the engine. The 17-year-old Fountain Valley High School senior then eases her brown leather boot onto the gas pedal and hits the road, a boat in tow.

“I have next to no experience driving a car,” Hayley tells her driving instructor, Ben Bennani.

In fact, she has been behind the wheel only twice — once on a short-lived cruise through a Sam’s Club parking lot in her father’s GMC pickup (which she says ended up being “a bad day”) and the other in the VW.

Within a half-hour into her trip Wednesday, Hayley finds herself avoiding heavy city traffic, weathering a blizzard that leaves icy puddles on the ground and dodging boulders during a rockslide.

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“Avoid the rocks,” Bennani warns her. “Another rock is coming!”

She plays it safe and cruises below 30 mph for most of the ride.

But as traffic backs up, Hayley looks to change lanes, signals, checks her mirrors and makes her move. An SUV beside her is picking up speed, but Hayley misses it in her blind spot. Her boat clips the SUV and she rolls the VW.

Not to worry though. Hayley and Bennani step out from behind the van’s drab window curtains without a scrape. This VW is unlike any other, Bennani says. It’s a driving simulator that he says can help save teenage drivers’ lives.

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Bennani gives students free simulator lessons at his A&A Car Rental in Costa Mesa. For 18-year-old Costa Mesa residents, he throws in a car rental when they take the California Department of Motor Vehicles road test for their driver’s license.

“Whatever it takes to motivate them,” he said.

His rental service also offers teenage renters (minimum age 18) a free designated driver if they have too much to drink.

Bennani got the idea to create a simulator in 2012 after his then-20-year-old daughter rolled her car on the 55 Freeway.

“She overreacted when she saw another car getting close to her and ended up rolling twice … everybody thought she died,” Bennani said.

He bought an aging VW from his neighbor for $500, then invested about $5,000 in a flat-screen TV that he bolted in the back seat, a Logitech steering wheel and gas pedals and a solar panel that he strapped to the roof to power the simulation software.

Bennani says he has trained about 300 students in the simulator since 2012.

“For the longest time, [Hayley] was just a little bit nervous about getting her license,” said her father, Doug. “She’s very cautious, timid, but her friends are all driving now,” so Hayley is giving it a shot.

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“And in here, you can’t hurt anyone,” he said.

“I’m terrified of everything,” Hayley said from behind the wheel. “But this is less threatening. It gives you a feel of driving without actually driving.”

The accelerator sticks, students have to hit a button on the shifter knob to check traffic, and the blocky graphics are surpassed by most new video games. But the simulator drives home basic concepts and gets students used to unexpected roadway dangers, most of which Bennani can control from a keyboard in the back seat.

Most of the weather scenarios seem unlikely for a half-hour drive through Southern California, but Bennani says it’s good to heighten the students’ awareness and prepare them for all situations.

About 2,400 people ages 16 to 19 died in car crashes in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A similar statistic is marked across the windows of Bennani’s VW.

Last month, five teenagers died in a single-car crash on the 5 Freeway in Irvine. The 16-year-old driver was unlicensed and had not begun driver training.

Bennani says accidents like that are reason enough to give teenagers as much training as possible before handing over a set of car keys.

“You’re giving them the freedom to jeopardize their life without proper training,” Bennani said.

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Young drivers aren’t required to use the simulator in order to rent one of Bennani’s cars, but he says most teenagers take advantage of it after he speaks with their parents.

“The parents always say yes. I can always convince them,” Bennani said. “I want to make sure they have proper training.”

Since he bought his business in 2005, Bennani’s renters have not had an accident in one of his cars, he said.

A&A Car Rental is at 440 Fair Drive. To arrange to use the simulator, call (949) 394-4272.


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