Drag racing star turns grief into mission to teach teens responsible driving

By: Jeff Rivenbark, Reporter

Do you have a teen who is learning to drive or know one who is? More than 5,000 teens will die in traffic crashes this year alone.

Many of these crashes are caused by risk taking or because a teen driver lacks the skills or experience to avoid a collision.

But one man is making it his personal mission to teach teens across the country lifesaving skills they may not have learned in driver's education classes.

Drag racing star Doug Herbert is known for speed. In fact, speeds topping 300 miles-per-hour have made Herbert a 10-time winner on the NHRA circuit.

But speed has also caused him his greatest loss.

In January of 2008, Herbert's sons -- 17-year-old Jon and 12-year-old James-- left their home in Cornelius, North Carolina, to get breakfast at a restaurant.

"That was a bad day," Herbert said.

At the time, Herbert was in Phoenix taking part in a race.

"Jon and James' mom called me and said, 'Hey, I think they were in a car accident,'" Herbert recalled.

Jon was speeding, lost control of the car he was driving, and veered into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Both of Herbert's sons died at the scene.

"I wish my younger son would have told my older son, 'Hey, don't drive like that, you don't need to drive like that, let me out of the car, or slow down,'" Herbert said.

From his grief, Herbert started a driving program called B.R.A.K.E.S. to teach other teens responsible driving skills.

He says there's just no way teens can learn all the need to know about driving in a driver's ed course at school where the emphasis is more on passing a driver's license exam rather than learning techniques behind the wheel.

"It's not drivers ed we do here," Herbert said. "We're teaching the teenagers how to avoid accidents."

We caught up with Herbert at the zMAX dragway in Concord, NC, on a rainy Saturday morning in April. That weekend, alone, instructors and volunteers with B.R.A.K.E.S. were preparing to teach four sessions over a two-day period for about 150 teenagers, ages 15-19. They hold sessions like this all over the country. Many of the instructors have taught agents with the United States Secret Service.

Jim Wilson signed up his 16-year-old daughter, Ellie, to take the class because she also drives her younger sister around their hometown.

"Oh, every time they leave the house its nerve-wracking because you're not in control of the situation," Wilson said. "That's one of the reasons why I wanted to bring her to this school so they can show her the dangers that are out there, and what you can do to try to minimize those dangers."

The program cost about $300 per student, but corporate sponsors help defray those expenses.

Ironically, the advanced driving school begins with about an hour of instruction high up in a luxury suite overlooking the drag strip where some of the fastest-accelerating machines on the planet are driven.

Instructors are quick to point out to students if they have the urge to speed, go to a drag strip or racetrack to watch professional drivers. They're continually told not to speed on roads where they could endanger not only their life, but the lives of other motorists or pedestrians. 

Following the classroom instruction, the students are taken outside and divided into small groups of three before they are placed in a car with an instructor who sits in the front passenger seat.

The teens get hands-on training in five courses including accident avoidance/slalom, distraction, panic stop, wheel drop and skid pad.

We rode inside one of the vehicles and observed the instructor creating all sorts of distractions while a teen attempted to stay focused on her driving. The teen had to maneuver the car on a windy course without striking any of the orange cones on the pavement.

"We're losing time, c'mon Destiny, we got to go," the instructor said. "Is the mirror set? Does the mirror work ok? Let's get some music. Ah, Fleetwood Mac."

With the music blaring, the instructor tells the students that distractions like this can turn deadly. Each cone a student hits while being distracted represents a pedestrian or vehicle they could have struck as a result of being distracted.

On another course, the students are pushed to make fast and safe lane changes to avoid a crash.

During the Drop Wheel/Off Road Recovery exercise, students are taught if their wheels end up on the shoulder of the road, their reaction can mean the difference between life and death.

"You can stay in the dirt, it doesn't matter how long," an instructor warned one teen driver behind the wheel. "Just don't ever snap that wheel because that's when the rear-end is going to come out, you're going to be in on-coming traffic, and be in the news in the morning. You don't want that!"

Near the end of the exercise, we met up with 15-year-old Julia Grainda. We asked what she learned from the experience.

"They've taught us to put the phones in our console in our car, and that if we hear a ring to our cell phone, to not look at it, even if we do, more things are important in the road, because if a deer goes by, you would want to be aware of that rather than if your friend texts you," Grainda said.

B.R.A.K.E.S. organizers work closely with the department of transportation and local and state police to determine which courses are most important to teach teen drivers.

"It makes it very real to me," Grainda said. "I want to stay alive."

Perhaps, the best lesson learned, is for parents to have an agreement with their teen.

"You don't want to get the phone call that I've got, so make this commitment to your teenager, that you'll get up, you'll bring them home--no punishment consequences," Herbert said. "You might talk to them about what happened, 'Hey, I don't think you made the best decision being in that particular situation where you were, but you did make a good decision calling me, I'm glad we got you home.'"

Advice Herbert hopes teens understand before it's too late.

So far, 10,000 teenagers and their parents have gone through the B.R.A.K.E.S. program. Another 3,500 teens and parents across the country will go through the program in 2014.

These driving schools are held all over the country and you can find out more about the program at www.putonthebrakes.org.

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