During a time when he was consumed with grief, an area man turned to a project to help others avoid the pain he was going through.
Doug Herbert, a professional drag racer and owner of Doug Herbert Performance Parts, lost both his children in January 2008. The Cornelius, North Carolina resident was in Phoenix when he got the call that Jon and James had been in a wreck. He went straight to the site and realized that his worst nightmare had come true. Jon, 17, and his brother James, 12, had been killed while driving to McDonald’s.
“My whole life changed,” Herbert said in a video online. “It only took a moment to lose my two boys, one moment and one bad decision. . (Jon) was driving recklessly. He was swerving through traffic. He was going too fast, and he lost control of the car.”
Herbert discovered that his family wasn’t the only one to experience such loss. About 6,000 teens are killed and 400,000 injured in car wrecks each year. “No parent wants to get that call that I got that January morning, but every day in America, about 15 families do,” he said. “Right after the accident with Jon and James, I wanted to do something to try and affect other kids’ lives and other parents’ lives.”
The tragedy spurred Herbert to create nonprofit organization B.R.A.K.E.S., which stands for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe. The program provides instruction for new drivers ages 15-19 who already have a learner’s permit or driver’s license and 30 hours of seat time. B.R.A.K.E.S. Director Matt Reilly also knows first-hand what driving inexperience can lead to. The Mooresville resident got involved with the organization after his mother-in-law was killed in a crosswalk by a 17-year-old texting driver.
“If we can just save one life, that’s just a priceless gift to that family. Doug and I both lost family members due to an accident,” he said. “Those accidents have a huge effect on our community. It really affects a lot of families, and it’s a nightmare everybody has to live through.”
When creating the curriculum, Herbert talked to the Department of Transportation to find out the key factors for wrecks. The four-hour course at Concord’s zMax Dragway provides training on accident avoidance, distracted driving, drop wheel/off road recovery, panic stopping, and car control. “We take drivers that have already had experience, and we teach them how to be a better driver,” Reilly said. “We’re in a controlled environment, and we can simulate panic situations.”
Professional instructors – such as drag racers, NASCAR drivers, precision drivers and law enforcement officials – train about 140 drivers each weekend, and will have trained a total of 10,000 by the end of this year, Reilly said. Parents are required to attend the session with their teen, and they spend time in the classroom together and then split up for hands-on road time. “We try to get the teens and the parents to connect. We’re training the parents on proper driving techniques,” Reilly said. “There’s a lot of new stuff that’s changed. The parents sometimes are not teaching the right things.”
Alan Ridenoure, head athletic trainer at Kings Mountain High School, took the course with his 16-year-old son, Jacob, and saw big changes. Ridenoure said Jacob used to be a hesitant driver and is now very confident behind the wheel. “There are just things you cannot learn in drivers’ ed. This course is such a good extension and reinforcement of things,” he said.
For one of the exercises, Jacob drove onto a wet skid pad at 50 mph to learn how to steer on slick surfaces. Other activities deal with defensive driving, deer jumping onto roadways, hitting ice, anti-lock braking systems, tailgating and respecting tractor trailers. “They’re put in hairy situations and taught how to deal with them,” Reilly said. “They overcome some fear. They build some confidence, and then they take the job of driving more seriously. What we want the kids to do is be responsible and make better decisions.”
B.R.A.K.E.S. also visits schools, often before spring break and graduation, to do presentations and provide information. Ridenoure is planning a B.R.A.K.E.S. day in April at Kings Mountain High, the first school in Gaston County to do so.