After all those years of trying to keep a child safe in the car -- rear facing baby seat, car seat, booster seat, riding in the back seat – handing that same (now sporting a learner's permit) kid the keys to the car and watching him drive has been very hard for me to do. I’m a strong believer that teaching kids to handle things well is the way to help them avoid trouble. But I was not prepared for how much I want to hide the keys and refuse to ever let my son Cole drive. I have to fight that urge every time we get in the car and he puts his hand out for the keys. I know that teaching him to be a good driver now -- while I have his attention -- will be good for him in the long run. And I do let him drive. And he is pretty good at it. But it makes me panicky.
A few months ago, I went to an event at Ford that involved riding in new Ford vehicles with a professional driver at the wheel. While I was skidding through a slalom course much faster than I would ever drive on my own, I decided to ask the driver, “How do you learn to drive like this.” It was clear he possessed an unusual level of competence behind the wheel. He was calm, in control of the vehicle, and able to chat and put the car into a sideways slide at the same time. He exuded a competence I wanted my son to have. I explained all that to the driver and he agreed. “I teach my teenage daughter to drive in all conditions on a track,” he told me. And we discussed (for the four minutes I was his passenger) the fears and challenges of teaching a teen to drive. “I’m not a professional driver. I don't have access to a track,” I said. “How do I get that sort of instruction for my son?” He nodded – clearly thinking about my question.
But my ride was over. I thanked him and got out of the car. But he wasn’t done. The track was full of professional drivers, each of them driving a different new Ford car for a blogger or other member of the media. So he made his next passenger wait while he stopped every driver he could find and asked them my question. They all shouted back, “Start with B.R.A.K.E.S defensive driving school.” That was a pretty strong recommendation from all these pros. So I looked it up as soon as I got home.
And I discovered exactly what I was looking for. B.R.A.K.E.S was founded by Doug Herbert after he lost both his teenage sons in a car accident. On that horrible day, Herbert’s oldest son was driving – just a quick trip for something to eat. He made a mistake. The kind of mistake teenagers make. But he and his brother -- and their parents -- paid a terrible price for that mistake. Herbert has made it his mission to teach teenagers to drive well -- the way that professional driver is teaching his daughter -- in the hope of preventing other parents from having to go through what he has endured. The school is a non-profit and travels the country (the schedule is here) offering teenagers a four-hour course in defensive driving taught by professional drivers. Thank you Doug Herbert!
I immediately registered my son and paid the $99 (refundable unless you want to donate it) deposit.
When I told Cole I had signed him up for driving school, he was mad. He assumed I thought he was a bad driver. (He isn’t.) But I insisted and he went this weekend.
He reports that it was not only lots of fun but it taught him a lot about himself as a driver. In fact, he told his little sister that she has to go when she is old enough. He got to drive fast on slalom under the guidance of a professional driver. He put the car into a slide on a wet surface. He drove faster than he was comfortable going and the teacher put the car into a slide and let him regain control of the car. He did all of this in cars owned and maintained by the school. You can read all about the courses here. I think everyone should get that sort of experience with a vehicle before they drive on a freeway.
Cole is happy he went. And so am I. He enjoyed it. And now he knows – at least a little – how much he didn’t know before. And I’m finding it just a little bit easier to let him have the keys to the car.