By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Learning to drive can become a contentious ordeal for even the most patient teens and their parents.

Former drag car racer Doug Herbert started out hoping to help teens improve their driving skills, but he’s ended up creating some better parent-teen relationships along the way.

“Some of the kids come to BRAKES kicking and screaming, but at some point during the day the light bulb comes on and they realize everything they don’t know. Those same ones that come in kicking and screaming have their arms around their parents at the end,” Herbert said.

BRAKES is a non-profit organization Herbert founded in memorial to his sons. He and his crew will be coming to Keizer’s Volcano Stadium on April 1 and 2 to help teens dive deep into defensive driving skills. There will be four chances to participate, from 8 am. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. each day.

The course is free, but a $99 refundable deposit is required. Students must be age 15 to 19 with a valid permit or license and 30 hours of driving experience. At least one parent also needs to attend with the student. Registration can be completed at putonthebrakes.org. A University of North Carolina study of the program showed that BRAKES graduates are 64 percent less likely to be involved in a car crash within the first three years of driving.

Herber never expected to become a driving instructor. His enthusiasm for driving fast found an outlet in the drag racing scene, but he always gave safety concerns their due. He was an early adopter of body harnesses and custom seats when they became available.

Everything changed in 2008, when his sons Jon and James, 17 and 12, respectively, were killed in a crash less than a half mile from their home in North Carolina.

“They’d hopped in the car to go to McDonalds and Jon was driving too fast,” Herbert said.

The following week, the local school closed for his sons’ funerals and Herbert went and talked with students about not only what he was going through as a parent, but what the students needed to do to be safe on the road.

“That’s when I realized I knew a lot about driving fast, but I also knew a lot about driving safe. It was as much therapy for me as it was for them,” Herbert said.

Not long after, Herbert founded BRAKES and enlisted a slew of highly-trained drivers to help in the effort.

“Most of them have their own BRAKES story and a reason for why they teach. It’s not like the local coach who also teaches driving,” Herbert said.

The BRAKES course begins in a mobile classroom, but soon both parents and their student drivers are taken to separate parts of the parking lot to take turns behind the wheel in a variety of high-risk scenarios like crash avoidance, emergency lane changes, steering with anti-lock brakes engaged, skid avoidance and recovery and what to do if a wheel drops off the road.

“We have special tires on some of the cars that perform like they are driving on ice,” Herbert said. “Each of our instructors makes sure that every driver has a good handle on the skills before sending them to the next part of the course.”

The end result is an experience that leaves an impact far beyond imparting defensive driving skills.

“I think everyone leaves with more appreciation for the fragility of life and knowing they need to pay more attention to those they love as well as the road,” Herbert said.

The BRAKES courses are being sponsored by Power Kia and the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.