If you’re a parent, you’re probably nervous about putting your teen driver on wheels. You have good reason to be: Car crashes are the number one killer of teens aged 16-19. Every year, car wrecks kill about 2,200 teens, and send another 220,000 or so to the emergency room. Among passengers of all ages, 20 percent of fatalities occur when a teen driver is at the wheel.
Drag racer Doug Herbert knows this all too well. In 2008 he got the phone call every parent dreads: His 17-year-old son Jon had been driving recklessly and crashed his car. In the passenger seat was his 12-year-old brother, James. Both of Doug’s sons were killed in the wreck.
Turning Tragedy into Opportunity
Doug felt devastated, but he quickly realized that he wasn’t alone: On average, six families get that same tragic phone call every day. As a professional drag racer, Doug knew the importance of safety, and he decided it was time that teens learn, too. Together with Jon and James’ friends, Doug started B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe), a defensive driving school aimed at teen drivers and their parents.
And in order to make sure he could reach as many teens as possible, he made the class free.
B.R.A.K.E.S. is a touring operation; nearly every weekend they hold classes in two separate locations around the country. (They are working on adding cars and staff for at third set of classes.) The program is open to all teen drivers who have a valid permit or license. Owing to high demand, families are asked for a $99 refundable deposit to secure a spot; the money is refundable, but roughly three-quarters of the families that attend leave their deposits as a donation. (B.R.A.K.E.S. is a 501(c)3 non-profit and donations are tax-deductible.) So far, over 22,000 kids have participated in the B.R.A.K.E.S. class.
Education for Teens and Parents
In order to establish their curriculum, B.R.A.K.E.S. looked at the types of crashes that are most dangerous to teens. The half-day course starts with a brief classroom session covering proper driving position, basic car dynamics and the types of dangerous situations that teen drivers (and passengers) are likely to face. Teens spend the bulk of the class behind the wheel— not of their own vehicles, but of a fleet of brand-new cars provided by Kia, one of B.R.A.K.E.S.’ primary sponsors. The kids are broken up into groups and participate in several driving modules: Panic braking, collision-avoidance swerves, distracted driving and — where the venue permits — recovery from getting a wheel off the road. The most exciting module is skid recovery, where the cars are fitted with plastic skins on the rear tires to make them more prone to spinning out.
B.R.A.K.E.S. differs from other teen defensive driving courses in several ways. For one thing, they emphasize that teens aren’t just at risk behind the wheel — they are also at risk in the passenger seat.
“My son Jon died because he made the decision to drive recklessly,” Doug tells the families that attend. “And my son James died because he made the decision not to tell Jon to stop or to get out of the car.”
Unlike most teen driver courses, B.R.A.K.E.S. gets parents involved as well. While the kids are out swerving and skidding, parents get instruction on how to best prepare their teens for life on the road. They are taught ways to be a better (and more patient) driving instructor, and are encouraged to give their kids as much seat time as possible.
“When you leave here,” the instructors tell them, “we don’t want to see a single parent behind the wheel. Your kids need the experience.”
Parents also get their own shot at seat time: B.R.A.K.E.S. has a dedicated group of Kias and a separate course where parents can experience some of the same exercises as their kids, including panic swerves and stops. (Parents don’t get to try skid recovery, owing to the high cost of the plastic tire skins.) They can also take a ride out to the courses and watch their teens in action.
In addition to classroom and driving activities, B.R.A.K.E.S. tries to get other organizations involved in the classes. On the weekend we attended the class in Pomona, California, KKW Trucking ran seminars on 18-wheeler safety. Parents and teens got the opportunity to sit in the cab of a big rig and see for themselves just how difficult it is for a truck driver to see other cars. They then got a ride in a tractor-trailer to experience just how much space these trucks need to accelerate, turn and stop, a dramatic demonstration of why trucks need to be given a wide berth.
At the end of the class, both parents and teens are asked to sign a pledge. Kids promise to drive responsibly, soberly and without distraction, and to call for a ride if there is no way to get a sober and safe ride home. Parents promise to spend at least 40 hours instructing their teens, to adopt a no-questions-asked policy for kids who need a safe ride home, and — just like their kids — to drive responsibly, soberly, and without distraction. Teens leave with a sense of accomplishment and a new skill set that may well keep them alive, and parents leave knowing they are less likely to get the same phone call as Doug Herbert.
Take Your Teen. Now.
Having experienced the program first hand, we urge the parents of all teens to take their young drivers to B.R.A.K.E.S., and to consider donating or volunteering if possible. Driving is literally the most dangerous activity in which our teens will participate, and yet driving instruction requirements in this country are woefully inadequate. Doug Herbert may not have been able to save the lives of his children Jon and James, but he’s doing everything he can to save the lives of yours.
To learn more about the B.R.A.K.E.S. program and sign up your teen, visit www.putonthebrakes.org.