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Mission Possible: Making a Difference in a Young Driver’s Life

New drivers can benefit from learning safe driving techniques on both city roads and highways as well as on the race track.

By Ilona French

Not only are manufacturers creating a safer race environment through vehicle and driver equipment, but various organizations have also stepped in to improve the way kids behave behind the wheel. For example, Concord, North Carolina-based BRAKES (Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe) is a charity created by multi-time Top Fuel drag racing champion Doug Herbert, who experienced the unimaginable tragedy of losing both of his sons, James and Jon, in a car crash in 2008. The organization’s mission is to prevent injuries and save lives by training teenage drivers and their parents about the importance of safe and responsible driving.

BRAKES is not driver’s ed. Rather, it is a free, hands-on, advanced driver training program taught by professional instructors who train the FBI, Secret Service and state troopers; perform stunts in the film industry; and/or race professionally. Training is open to teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19, who have a valid driver’s license or learner’s permit, and at least 30 hours of driving experience. Since 2008, BRAKES has conducted schools in dozens of cities across the country, training more than 25,000 teens—plus their parents—to be better drivers.

The sessions start with a short, 45-minute classroom presentation, which is followed by more than 2.75 hours behind the wheel of a car. Courses include distracted driving awareness, panic braking, crash avoidance and skid control—all the leading causes of crashes for new drivers.

“University of North Carolina Professor Emeritus, Dr. Paul Friday, conducted a study comparing the driving records from five years of BRAKES graduates with those of non-graduate peers and found that BRAKES graduates were 64 percent less likely to experience a crash in the first three years of driving—a staggering number when you consider that car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers,” said Herbert.

Combining teens and parents, BRAKES is responsible for training nearly 50,000 safer drivers. “Every week,” said Herbert, “we receive countless emails and phone calls expressing gratitude for our life-saving training, often recounting close calls that could have been disastrous if it weren’t for the valuable lessons learned at BRAKES.”

BRAKES education can also translate to young racers. “With their passion leading them to focus on learning and practicing driving skills, young racers have the opportunity to be influencers among their peers, stressing the importance of safe driving habits on the street and encouraging anyone with an interest in speed or competition to ‘take it to the track,’ which was the reason the NHRA was founded and is advice we share with every BRAKES student,” Herbert said.

Another organization determined to make a difference in the youth segment is Napa Valley, California-based NASA. In terms of its regular track events, the organization’s HPDE program uses NASA instructors riding in the car with novice drivers, teaching proper techniques in braking, steering input and the racing line, and always reinforcing safety as a primary concern. Those drivers rise through its HPDE program, from HPDE1 beginners to HPDE4 drivers, who are then eligible to compete in Time Trial or attend competition school to get their provisional racing licenses.

But NASA doesn’t stop there. The organization also offers its Car Control Clinic to young drivers, where students drive their own cars through training that includes skid control, emergency stops, hazard avoidance, parallel parking and slalom courses. “It’s more demanding than any state driving test,” said Jeremy Croiset.

A NASA Car Control Clinic takes place over the course of a day, and begins with the more rudimentary exercises, like parallel parking and driving in reverse, then graduates to the trickier drills like hazard avoidance and driving the slalom course. “The kids usually end up running through the slalom course a lot because they end up having fun,” said Croiset. “The gratifying part of staging a NASA Car Control Clinic is seeing the difference the course makes in the students. You can see their car control improve throughout the day, which raises their skill levels along with their confidence. You can see from their smiles that they’re starting to have fun, too.”

Graduates of the Car Control Clinic receive a certificate of completion, and parents who take those certificates to their insurance agents often qualify for discounts on their premiums. “That’s fantastic,” said Croiset, “because we all know insurance premiums for young drivers can be pretty pricey.”

NASA youth programs play a key role in motorsports. It’s worth noting that five of the last seven young drivers to win the Mazda Road to the 24 Shootout, now in its 11th year, have come from NASA. “I think that speaks volumes about the level of competition in our racing programs and the kind of driver that competition produces,” said Croiset. Also, every year, there are a number of NASA racers who make the jump into a professional series, such as Mazda MX-5 Cup, the Continental Series, Pirelli World Challenge, or even Indy car and NASCAR; and many of them have been able to notch wins and podium finishes early in their careers.

Mission Possible: Making a Difference in a Young Driver’s Life

Several programs exist, such as BRAKES and NASA’s HPDE program (seen here) and Car Control Clinic, that give young drivers the confidence they need to develop driving skills.

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