Academy works to reverse Colorado’s growing traffic death trend

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BRIGHTON, Colo. -- Over the past two years, the Colorado Department of Transportation has seen traffic deaths jump almost 25 percent and authorities say the trend needs to be reversed.

In 2018, 150 people have died on Colorado’s roads, according to CDOT.

“Every crash is preventable,” said Michal Michalkow, who has been an EMT for the past 16 years and spent the last seven with Platte Valley Hospital.

He has seen hundreds of horrific crashes and has had to console hundreds of grieving families.

“I got tired of picking up bodies off the street. Got tired of seeing dead people,” he said. “I’ve responded to multiple crashes and wanted to save lives in a different way.”

Michalkow now works part time as a paramedic while also running First Gear Driving Academy, which is dedicated to preventing fatal accidents.

“When you’re losing control of the vehicle, people panic. They tense up,” he said. “You can break that habit only by driving and getting that hands-on training.”

His class uses a specialized “skid car” that lifts the vehicles tires off the ground using a system that looks like training wheels.

In the skid car, an empty parking lot can be turned into a wild ride with the push of a button.

“He can put you into a total fishtail or an all-out spin and really make you lose control of the vehicle,” Leah Hebert said.

Hebert, a mother of two young girls, decided to take the defensive driving course to be a better driver for her kids.

“I consider myself a really safe driver, but I was totally blown away,” she said.

While the skid car is only a simulation, it mimics dangerous conditions drivers are likely to encounter on the roads.

“It definitely feels real,” Hebert said. “You’re going and losing control of the vehicle and it’s not scary anymore after you’ve done it over and over again.

"It just really becomes second nature. You know what to do.”

The course helps drivers learn to handle situations such as black ice, snow, overcorrection and taking sharp turns too fast.

“When you are behind the wheel it’s a full-time job. Eyes on the road at all times. Pay attention to your surroundings,” Michalkow said.

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