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Teen drivers get hands-on training at Atlanta Dragway
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Bill Dillashaw lead an informative session for the parents regarding seating and mirror settings during the B.R.A.K.E.S program for teens on Saturday at the Atlanta Dragway in Commerce. - photo by ELISE PERKINS

Teen proactive driving school

What: Defensive driving training

When: 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Free, with $99 deposit for reservation

Where: Atlanta Dragway, 500 East Ridgeway Road, Commerce

Contact: Visit putonthebrakes.org for more information and registration

Everyone remembers their first time sliding behind the wheel of a car, learning the basics: blinkers, gas pedal and brakes.

As budget cuts force schools to scale back drivers education programs, and technology has increased distractions for drivers of all ages, teenagers are being taught to drive from a computer screen without the hands-on aspect of being behind the wheel.

This weekend, Doug Herbert offered his B.R.A.K.E.S. program at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce to educate teen drivers on how to, as the acronym states, “Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe.”

The four-hour defensive driving course is hands-on, and involves not only the teen driver but their parents or guardians who complete some of the same simulations.

The idea for the local sessions was sparked by Shannon Hamilton of White County, whose daughter and another teen were killed March 15 in a wreck in Cleveland.

Matt Reilly, director of operations for B.R.A.K.E.S., leads the program that started out in Charlotte, N.C., seven years ago with 50 teens. It has grown to 17 states, and will reach more than 5,000 teen drivers this year.

“Our information that we share plus the exercises we’ve built into the program is based on DOT crash numbers,” Reilly said. “The DOT will tell us the main key reasons that teen drivers crash, so we try to give them practical practice behind the wheel and give them muscle memory training.”

The program starts with an introductory information session known as Ground School, and includes a contract for both teens and parents to sign to encourage safe driving habits.

“We talk to the kids about what we’re going to teach them, about proper seat position, how to set their mirrors correctly, and how to react to situations that they may encounter on the street and then the majority of their time is spent behind the wheel of the car with a professional instructor riding shotgun,” Reilly said.

The hands-on aspect is one of the reasons Carla Buehler of Villa Rica made the drive with her 15-year-old daughter.

“It’s very hands-on and I like that, because you can sit and listen to someone talk to you, but until you really do it and experience it you don’t the applications,” Buehler said.

The class that maxes out at 36 teens is divided into groups that rotate between several stations including skid recovery, a lane-change simulation, ABS panic braking slide, distracted driving simulations that include cellphone distractions and fatal vision goggles — “drunk goggles” — and a drop wheel exercise that simulates what happens when one side of the car falls off the edge of the road.

“We know she can drive well, but we wanted her to be more aware of what her surroundings were and just give her the opportunity to learn how to drive defensively and not just offensively all the time,” Buehler said. “I think it’s not just for teenagers. I think everybody should take this class.”

The requirements for the course are for each driver to have a permit or license with at least 30 hours of seat time. The course takes those basic skills and understanding to the next level with each session.

“The parents love this program. Typically what we see is kids coming in here kicking and screaming and they don’t think they need it. And then after about 20 minutes they’re like, ‘Holy cow, I thought I was better than this, they didn’t teach me this in driver’s ed, and I didn’t know any of this stuff,’” Reilly said.

There is an unspoken expectation some students will spin out or run over a cone or two, but that’s what Reilly wants them to do during the class in a controlled environment instead of on a busy highway.

“It’s real-life experiences. We try to simulate panic situations but in a controlled environment. That will arm them, if they make a mistake out here, so what, we’ll do it again, put out more cones and try it again until you get it right,” Reilly said.

Four years after her daughter completed the course in Charlotte, N.C., Laura Reynolds of Clarkesville brought her 16-year-old son out Saturday.

“It teaches them things that could happen in everyday life that we don’t practice all the time,” Reynolds said. “(Everyone should do this) to save their lives and others around them. I mean that’s our main goal: to keep our kids safe.”

While she said her daughter learned a lot from the course, luckily she hasn’t had to put a lot of it to use.

“The hands-on is pretty incredible, to do the things that they’re doing. They don’t learn a lot off of drivers ed on the computer, it’s a little different (to handle a car),” Reynolds said.

All of the instructors are professional drivers, with a background in motorsports, teaching or law enforcement, and are eager to share their knowledge.

“Hopefully between the information that’s shared and the hands on training they have, themselves armed with better knowledge that they’ll be able to react better behind the wheel, make better choices and decisions and get home in one piece,” Reilly said.

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