In an events center in Hampton, Georgia, on a dreary spring Saturday morning, dozens of teenagers stare at the floor while their parents make small talk around them. It’s before 8 a.m. and the mood in this ballroom turned-classroom is glum, despite the cheeriness of the uniformed volunteers checking folks in. The group is about to begin a driving safety course, and the adolescents in the room aren’t exactly on the edges of their seats.
The presentation begins promptly at the top of the hour, and it starts with a terribly sad story that even the teenagers in the room can’t ignore. It’s followed by some sobering statistics – more teens die every day from car crashes than from cancer, homicide and suicide – and some actionable driving tips. Then, the lights click on;everyone seems surprised. The class is over in a tight 30 minutes. It’s time to move on to the practical portion of the course – driving real cars accompanied by professional drivers. Many of the teenage attendees have a noticeable spring in their step as they walk out of the classroom and into the shadow of Atlanta Motor Speedway, the massive racetrack that hosts an annual 500-mile NASCAR race.
The beauty of the B.R.A.K.E.S. program is found in that balance: a brief half hour of classroom time gives way to several hours actually spent behind the wheel. Rather than bludgeoning teenagers with scary statistics that can feel abstract and detached, students have the opportunity to see how a car feels when it loses control. It’s visceral and
impactful; these teenage drivers are developing real-life skills that could help them navigate situations that nearly all drivers will face at some point in their lives.
“I liked that it wasn’t all classroom time, but we did get a little instruction so we weren’t clueless about the driving part,” said John Valduga, a 15-year-old student driver from Augusta, Georgia.
B.R.A.K.E.S., an acronym for “Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe,” is the brainchild of NHRA drag racer Doug Herbert, who suffered the unfathomable loss of sons Jon and James to a single car wreck in 2008. He channeled his grief and driving skill into teaching other teenagers how to be more confident and conscientious drivers. He began by teaching his sons’ friends and, over the course of more than 10 years, has grown B.R.A.K.E.S. into a nationwide program. The program, which is offered to families for free (though B.R.A.K.E.S. does solicit donations), puts on weekend seminars at NASCAR tracks and
fairgrounds, bringing along their own fleet of instructional vehicles.
Just outside the Earnhardt grandstand at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the fleet of instructional vehicles donated by KIA is neatly arranged in a large parking lot. The cars are segmented into smaller groups that will rotate through a variety of obstacles meant to mimic real-life driving situations.
These include a slalom exercise for collision avoidance, a panic braking drill and a drop-wheel exercise for off-road recovery. In the classroom, the group learned that dropped wheels, or driving off of the road surface (usually due to distracted driving), is by far the most common cause of single-car wrecks. There is even a group of cars outfitted with plastic tires that have almost no grip, approximating the loss of control experienced on wet or icy roadways.
“The driving was fun, especially the drifting part where you spun out,” said Valduga. “We also got to drive with the drunk goggles on,” he said, referring to the alcohol impairment vision goggles used in one of the challenges.
Parents are included, too. A few cars are reserved for parents to try their hand at some of the driving drills, and a representative from the local KIA dealership is right there in case
anyone decides they’d like to drive home in a new car (or buy one for their kid). Many of the parents are excited about the opportunity the B.R.A.K.E.S. program is giving their kids.
John’s parents, Billy and Lisa, brought him to the program from Augusta, Georgia, a little less than three hours away from Atlanta Motor Speedway. The younger Valduga still
has a learner’s permit that limits him to driving only with an adult in the car in Georgia, but his dad appreciates the opportunity for him to learn from a professional instructor. Valduga,
an insurance agent for State Farm, is especially aware of the risks inherent to driving.
“Any time you can get two or three hours behind the wheel, even if you’re rotating out the drivers, it’s amazing,” said the elder Valduga, watching his son’s vehicle from the edge of the tarmac.
“It’s unique; the high-speed maneuvering, where you don’t have to worry about hurting yourself or someone else – it’s great. You put yourself in a situation that’s uncomfortable so that when you see it again, you become comfortable.”
It also helps that the course is technically free, though the reality is a little more complicated. Families make a $99 deposit in order to register their teenagers for the program, a tactic that helps reduce the number of no-shows that could throw off the three-to-one student-instructor ratio. At the end of the course, they can choose to have their deposit refunded or allow the B.R.A.K.E.S. organization to keep it as a donation since it’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Verduga and other parents said they felt the course was well worth their $99 donation.
In addition to accepting donations, B.R.A.K.E.S. has a wealth of corporate sponsors, from OEMs like KIA and Tier 1 suppliers like DENSO to local highway patrols and car insurers. All that support makes for an impressive setup that helps keep the teenage students’ attention. The fleet of instructional vehicles are all nearly new KIAs in a variety of colors, and there’s a hospitality tent with snacks, coffee and chairs for the parents. There’s even a parked semi-truck provided by a local FedEx hub with experienced drivers on hand. Real cars have been placed in blind spots on either side so that parents and students can see exactly what a truck driver on the highway would see. It’s a good reminder that driver safety extends beyond the driver’s own cockpit; interpreting different driving scenarios
is much easier when you understand the perspectives of other drivers.
As the morning winds down, the cars that were previously skidding, sliding and screeching over the expanse parking lot are noticeably more controlled. Even the cars with the
plastic rear tires resist swinging into a full spin.
“I did get it after a few tries,” said John Valduga. “The cars were fun; we had the traction control turned off.”
At this point, every student has completed each of the five driving challenges and received personal, professional instruction for how to navigate them.
The entire group heads back to the classroom for a debrief, and the teenagers appear decidedly more chipper than they had at 8 a.m. Maybe that’s because they’ve had the chance to wake up, or because the weather has cleared over the course of the morning. Or maybe it’s because they’ve had a thrilling few hours behind the wheel, expanding their comfort zones with the help of professional drivers. Maybe they’re excited to have learned a few new practical skills. You can never tell with teenagers.