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Doug Herbert's take on personal tragedy: Teens need more behind-the-wheel-experience

doug herbert brakes program In 2008, professional drag racing driver Doug Herbert lost his two teenage sons, Jon and James Herbert, in a car crash near their Charlotte, N.C., home.  

The tragedy devastated him but Herbert decided to use his heartbreaking experience to help other teen drivers.  In 2008, Herbert founded the B.R.A.K.E.S. program, which teaches advanced driving skills to teen drivers and their parents.

By 2014, more than 13,000 drivers in 30 states and three countries had completed the program. asked Herbert why the program works and how he's learned to help today's teen drivers.

Q. Tell me about your B.R.A.K.E.S. program. Why did you start it?

A. After my sons died, I decided the best thing I could do is give teenagers more behind-the-wheel experience. I did some research and learned that traffic accidents are the No. 1 killer of teenagers.

I decided to start an advanced driver training school that would place them in some emergency situations -- like handling a skid, making an emergency lane change, or dropping a wheel off the road -- and teach them how to handle them.

The training goes for four hours -- one hour of classroom and three hours behind the wheel with an instructor. Our instructors have trained secret service professionals, worked with military and law enforcement, and are stunt drivers and racecar drivers. These are not just driver’s ed teachers.

We target kids who have obtained their driver's license or have at least 30 hours' of experience behind the wheel. We've found that if they have less experience than that, they aren't able to use the training.

Q. What kinds of letters (from parents of teens or teens themselves) are most gratifying?

A. Nearly every day we get phone calls, emails, and letters from teens and their parents. They're all gratifying -- but especially when they say that their B.R.A.K.E.S training kept them out of a car crash.

Q. What are the factors that lead to teen driver crashes? How can these be prevented?

A. Teen drivers, like most of the rest of us, have to deal with "connection distractions" like cellphones and texting, along with traditional temptations like fiddling with the radio.

We do a distraction exercise where they text or mess with the radio while driving.

Before the exercise they might think, "Oh, I can do this (texting or calling someone on a cell) and drive."

When they mow down a bunch of cones, it grabs their attention. But better cones than another car.

Q. How well are driver's education courses designed, in your observation?

A. One reason for schools like ours is that often, teens are driving "to the test" – they’re highly focused on just passing the driving test and getting their license.  

But passing the state driving test doesn't necessarily make you a good driver in all situations. It means you understand some of the rules -- but passing the test is just the first step of several that make a competent driver. That's where programs like B.R.A.K.E.S can be very helpful.

Q. What advice do you have for parents whose teen is about to start driving?

A. Parents of teens are busy! But new teen drivers today have more distractions than any other generation.

Parents are more important than ever. Many public-school driver-education programs have had their funding cut in recent years, so Mom and Dad are playing a bigger role in making sure their teens get adequate driver training.

Whether they know it or not, a 16-year-old has been driving for years -- observing parents and how they drive. The more time a parent can spend with their son or daughter when they're learning to drive, the better.

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