That’s my 16-year-old son swerving that car through those pylons in that blurry cell phone video. No, he was not joyriding. He was learning how to become a safer driver – and having a bit of fun while doing it.
Seated next to him was Jeff Fuller, a professional NASCAR driver who volunteers his time for B.R.A.K.E.S, which stands for Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe.
This past weekend my son and I made the four-hour trek to the zMax raceway north of Charlotte, NC, to attend the B.R.A.K.E.S. sessions. Needless to say there was some grumbling involved. “This is the last time I say yes to anything Mom asks me to do,” he carped from the passenger seat. Me, I had no great passion for driving 4+ hours to and from a 4-hour driving session either, but I wanted my son to be a better driver than I was at his age (and really, better than I am now).
The B.R.A.K.E.S. Teen Pro-Active Driving School was started by drag racer Doug Herbert in 2008 after he lost his two teenage sons in a car accident. His 17 year old was driving, his 12 year old was in the passenger seat. It’s a charity run entirely on donations; parents are asked to provide a check for $99 for each student, which they are welcome to take back after the sessions are over. I doubt any of the 30 or so parents who attended our session took their money back.
While the parents watch, professional drivers take the kids in groups of three and work them through a series of courses designed to sharpen their skills and open their eyes.
For example: The instructors tell the kids to accelerate through a surface slick with water, then yank the emergency brake to cause a skid. The purpose: To teach kids how to turn into the skid and regain control of the car. They make them to drive through a figure 8 course with wooden cutouts of schoolkids and other vulnerable obstacles at the edges, then force them to text on their phones or answer questions or blast the radio while driving. The reason? To teach them that distracted driving is bad driving.
As we learned before the sessions, it takes an average of 4.6 seconds to read a text – during which time a car traveling at 45 mph covers the length of a football field. Fatalities from texting while driving are reaching such epidemic proportions that Congress is debating whether to pass a national law banning it.
In other courses, the kids are told to drive as fast as possible towards a small barrier, then jam on the brake pedal and veer to one side. The goal here is to teach them how anti-lock brake systems work, and how they can still retain control over the vehicle even while braking hard. They have to deliberately veer onto the shoulder of the road, then safely guide the car back onto the pavement – so they don’t panic and make a fatal mistake when it happens to them in real life.
Parents got to drive part of the course too. My favorite – and, as it turns out, my son’s favorite – was the slalom in the video above. It was fun yanking the wheel and hearing the tires squeal while knowing the car was designed to do exactly that. Unfortunately, I ended up murdering several cones along the way.
I asked my son the best thing he’d learned. He said it was that he could control the car if it ever went into a skid. That was something he’d been worried about. The added confidence my son has behind the wheel was easily worth $99 and the eight-hour commute.
B.R.A.K.E.S. taught 3000 teens to be better drivers last year. Yet that’s still only half the number of annual teen car fatalities. They’re trying to take the program nationwide, and looking for donations to help them reach that goal. If you’ve got a leadfoot teenager itching to get his or her hands behind the wheel, I would highly recommend teaching them to put on the B.R.A.K.E.S. And if there isn’t a school near you, you should contact these folks and see what it will take to get one.