TOPEKA — Professional drag racer Doug Herbert bore witness Tuesday to the value of a driving safety program inspired by the death of his two sons in a head-on collision in North Carolina.
“For more than 20 years, I’d been a drag racer. Driving these race cars, you go 330 mph” he said in conjunction with Kansas’ annual recognition of Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day. “I found out the car crash is the No. 1 thing that kills teenagers.”
In January 2008, his boys — Jon, 17, and James, 12 — instantly became part of the nation’s grim statistical record of vehicular mortality. In response to their deaths north of Charlotte, N.C., Herbert started a school called Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe, or BRAKES, to improve driving skills of teenagers.
“As part of my therapy, really, I wanted to do what I could to train my boys’ friends. In 2008, we trained 50 of their friends in safe driving,” Herbert said. “We got them in the car, behind the wheel. Taught them about dropping a wheel off the side of the road. Avoiding the skid. Distractions. Since then, we’ve trained about 30,000 kids from 43 different states.”
A University of North Carolina professor reported participants in BRAKES were 63 percent less likely to be in a wreck than peers who didn’t receive the training.
Herbert and two Kansans shared cautionary accident stories at the Capitol with an audience comprised primarily of teenagers. They were there to mark annual renewal of a safety campaign designed to reduce traffic deaths.
In 2016, 429 people were killed on Kansas roads. Seventy-six, or 18 percent, were teenagers.
“If we put on a seat belt, slow down and pay attention, just think of all the lives we would save,” said Richard Carlson, secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation.
In 2015, Thunder Ridge High School teacher Denise Miller was forced to absorb the agony of losing a daughter, Courtney, in a one-vehicle crash near the Nebraska line. She said Courtney, who was wearing a seat belt, apparently allowed the truck she was driving to slip off the shoulder. It rolled and came to a stop upside down in a field close to the Millers’ farm in Kensington.
“My husband and I were standing on the edge of a field staring in disbelief,” she said. “Rescue workers weren’t doing anything to free her from that vehicle. It was already too late. We could talk forever of our devastation, our grief. But it was nothing new to our small community.”
She said five of the tiny high school’s students died in traffic accidents in a 15-year period. In response, she said, the community promoted Kansas Safe, or Seat belts Are For Everyone, to help students understand the responsibility of climbing behind the wheel.
Through the years, seat belt usage among students has increased from 74 percent to 89 percent.
Logan O’Dea, a Topeka resident and former football player at Kansas State University, said he was a lucky survivor of a violent accident on Interstate 70.
“Always growing up, I viewed myself as a very good driver. I had a vague sense of immortality,” he said.
That changed when O’Dea hit a patch of standing water on a curve while driving 70 mph. The car slid off the interstate, spun around and smashed into trees. He walked away.
“I was wearing my seat belt. If I hadn’t been, my body would have been with the back-window glass they found flung 50 feet away from the car. I am aware of how close I was to dying.”