I have never been in a serious car crash where the vehicle’s airbags have deployed or a first responder has had to extract me from a vehicle. Nor have I ever had to answer the door to a state trooper telling me a loved one has been killed on the highway. But many people have, especially parents of those 6,000 teenagers who die or 400,000 who are injured every year in car crashes. One of those parents who had to see a state trooper on the doorstep was Doug Herbert’s wife. Herbert, who was competing in an NHRA Top Fuel drag-racing weekend in January of 2008 received a phone call from his wife telling him that his two sons had been killed in a highway collision. John and James Herbert, ages 17 and 12, were driving down a road and made an unsafe pass, resulting in a head-on collision. Both of their young lives were over in an instant.
While most parents never recover from a tragedy like this, Herbert knew the only way to survive was to do everything he could to save other parents from going through the same pain. This desire pushed him to create B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe), a free driving school held across the country on weekends that’s designed to teach new teen drivers all about car control and the consequences of their actions.
The four-hour class not only teaches the students, but the parents as well. One requirement of the education is that at least one parent attends with the teen. B.R.A.K.E.S. teaches four classes a weekend: two on Saturday and two on Sunday, morning and afternoon. This allows a total of about 300 people (half kids, half parents) to attend and drive. The only other major requirement is that the teen has either a driver’s license or permit, and at least 30 hours of drive time behind the wheel. Keep in mind that this is not a driving school, but a classroom and hands-on experience on car control, so they must know how to operate a vehicle.
B.R.A.K.E.S. is a non-profit organization, and runs through the kindness of donations and corporate sponsors, the biggest one being Kia, which donates a fleet of Rios, Fortes and Souls for the instructors to use on the courses.
We attended the school on a warm Saturday at the Pomona Fairgrounds, which donates the use of the grounds for the school. Unlike a lot of other car control schools, B.R.A.K.E.S. spends time with the parents and kids talking about the goals for the day, and then also spends time talking to the parents alone when their teens go outside to drive the courses.
From the start, the class focuses on making smart decisions. Matt Reilly, director of operations, is a professional driving instructor, who has taught everyone from Jeff Gordon to Dale Earnhardt. He’s personable, passionate about the school, and understands from personal tragedy how a bad decision from a teenager can alter lives forever. Reilly starts by talking about how the school started, and then introduces Doug Herbert to speak to the class. Herbert tries hard to be at many of the weekend classes to bring attention to the school, as well as lend his support and tell his story. Having to relive it every weekend must be difficult for him, but the driving force is knowing this will help save just one of these kids from the same fate.
Watching the kids before the class started, you could see by the body language that a lot of them didn’t want to be spending their Saturday with their parents, or being told that they don’t know everything. Reilly quickly gets their attention by sharing some sad statistics: 50 percent of all teens will be in a crash in the first month of their driving, and 89 percent of teens age 15 to 19 years old will be in a crash in the first three years of their driving careers. When he asks how many in the class were already involved in a crash, almost all the hands went up.
Part of the reason they are doing the class, Reilly explains, is because many states and schools have either seriously reduced or completely cut funding for driver’s education training, leaving the parents to either pay the $1,500 and higher fees for a decent driving school or minimal fees for minimal training. The cost to reserve one of the limited spots in the class is to write a check for $99, which is refundable after the class. However, if you decide the class was worth it, you can leave the check as a tax-deductible donation to this non-profit organization.
The school employs about 16 professional drivers to man the courses for the day, and they all are experienced drivers with either racing titles or instructing backgrounds. The instructors rotate depending on location, but Reilly makes sure they all have the same qualifications, along with the ability to have patience to teach kids without yelling (something that’s often difficult for the parents, but Reilly talks to them about how to avoid that situation in the car). Today, the instructor conducting the 30-minute ground school was our good friend Don Fuller, who we worked with at Motor Trend magazine, and who we can attest for both driving talents and the ability to entertain a group while teaching at the same time.
Fuller gets the kids involved by talking to them about making good decisions and not getting in the car with friends who have been drinking, or not following too closely behind a semi because they can’t see your car. (KKW Trucking, another great partner for B.R.A.K.E.S., brings out a few trucks to not only teach the kids how cars easily hide in their blind spots, but also let’s them see what it’s like inside a big rig.) Fuller also covers the basics of correct seating position, hand position on the steering wheel, what understeer and oversteer are and how it affects a car’s handling, and more. These are all car-handling facts that no one ever tells a new driver, but expects them to know without being taught. Not possible.
Once the class is over, the parents remain inside the class and the students head out to the courses, rotating through each event until every driver has had a chance to run a few times through every course.
While the kids are outside, the parents are getting an education in what can happen if the worst occurs, either your teen is injured or dies, or kills someone else. The possibility of losing everything you have because you’re under insured is a reality that few foresee or expect, but is almost guaranteed. This is above and beyond dealing with the emotional turmoil or loss.
Speaking of insurance, Liberty Mutual has a program for those who are in North Carolina where the parents and kids get a 10 percent discount on insurance. B.R.A.K.E.S. is working hard to get other insurance companies to not only recognize its driving program as a positive influence, but one that’s worthy of an insurance discount.