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So you were driving down a snowy road and saw something alarming: a car in an empty parking lot skidding around in circles. Once you got closer you realized its driver was a mere kid, 19 at most. Time to call the cops? Maybe, but hear me out first.

In many parts of the country, this rite of passage is called, “doing donuts.” It’s especially popular in rural places with wide open spaces. While doing donuts is easier in the snow, many folks also do this trick in a dirt lot. I grew up in the wilds of Vermont where such maneuvers are just a part of life. In fact,

I’ll never forget the day that I spun my truck around with a city-born girlfriend in the front seat and she just stared at me before asking, “Who taught you to do that.” I shrugged and said, “You just sort of figure it out.” And in hindsight I realize that’s the real value of doing donuts.

A car driver navigates through a donut skid.
Car driver | iStockPhoto

To successfully do donuts, you have to break your tires lose and get your vehicle into something like a slide. You also have to calculate how far you’ll slide to know whether you have enough room. And finally, you get a feel for when you’ll regain traction. These are all critical skills for driving in adverse conditions, such as during a snowstorm. And experience is the world’s best teacher.

Put another way, you don’t know the limits of you and your vehicle until you find a safe way to push them.

I’m not arguing that teenagers are doing donuts with the express purpose of making themselves safer drivers. They are probably just setting out to have some fun and maybe show off for their friends. But I would argue that new drivers voluntarily putting themselves in these situations have at least an instinct to learn to better control their vehicles. And if they finish a set of donuts and ask themselves, “How could I have done more rotations?” Or “Could I have exited that spin earlier?” they are sure to improve their capabilities.

There are of course many situations when it’s irresponsible to try out things such as donuts. If you don’t have enough space to do it safely. Or if you are just borrowing a car from your parents, flogging tires you can’t afford to replace is irresponsible. And more than one teenager on a privately-owned parking lot has discovered they were not only being filmed by security, but that the landowners are happy to press charges for tearing up the lot.

When I shared this Op-Ed to Twitter, one of my followers commented with a heartwarming solution:

“In my small town the local deputies and police did this with kids to show them how to control a skid. Accidents went down, there was no drunk driving…it was a great time.”

Twitter User

You may still choose to stop that teenage driver doing donuts, or even report them. And there are several good reasons to do so. But there are also situations in which practicing low-traction maneuvers in a safe, controlled way, can build better drivers.