It was September 15, 2012 about 11:55 PM on a wet Friday night when I awoke from a light sleep. I immediately wondered if my son made it home. A senior in high school, his curfew is 12:00 AM on weekends and 10:00 PM on school nights.
I walked through the home toward the garage and kitchen area to confirm he still had not returned home. My son’s vehicle has a GPS tracking device, not because I am an overbearing parent, but because I run a driving school and all of our vehicles have this device. The device monitors pre-defined events including entering and leaving his school property, speed notifications and other boundary restrictions.
I went to login to the GPS tracking app and noticed several email alerts notifying me of excessive speed by his vehicle. I opened the first alert and it tracked his vehicle speed on a local side road at 89 MPH at 12:02 AM, the second 93 MPH at 12:05 AM and third at 98 MPH at 12:08 AM. I was not aware anyone was with him. The posted speed limit on this side road is 40 MPH. My shock and panic shot a rush of blood through my back and to my head. I was truly frightened for his safety and life more than I ever had been before.
As a parent of an active running and jumping boy, he gave me cause for panic more than a few times, but this fear went into my back, causing my blood pressure to go off the charts and making me nauseous.
I reached for the phone to call him and started to dial his cell phone when I heard an inner voice say, “Don’t call him yet. Wait for him to bring the vehicle to a stop and then decide what to do.” I sent a track locator to his car and it reported the vehicles location and a speed of 47 MPH. As my overwhelming anxiety began to subside, I sent one more locate request to his vehicle. I was able to see that he pulled into the parking lot of the local burger joint, his car was in park and the engine was off. I then sent a “disable starter” command. He would not be able to start this vehicle whatsoever; it was completely disabled.
I got dressed, put my shoes on (forgot the socks) and headed to where he was, about 3 miles away from home. 12:25 AM, 17 minutes later, I was at the restaurant standing in front of my son asking for the keys to the car and his driver’s license. That same blood boiling fear returned when I learned he had four teenagers traveling in the vehicle with him at the time. My fear quickly transformed to anger toward my son and his passengers. Controlled anger.
Now, I need to tell you about my son’s driver education and training experience. At 13 years old he was able to pass all five Colorado state driver license written tests, he completed at least two four-hour driver awareness courses and perfectly completed a Colorado state approved 30 hour in-class course. He was trained by not less than five certified driving instructors for 25 hours of driving. I was his parent driving coach for more than 100 hours behind-the-wheel, this included cross country trips, trucks and large three-axle trailers; I too am a certified driving instructor.
The teenagers who were in the vehicle were 15 and 16 years old. Three of them were from my church and two of them just completed my company’s classroom driver education course by one of the Texas Education Agency’s top driver education teachers.
My company is the National Driver Training Institute. We are one of the nation’s largest schools and the pioneer of the first approved home study and online driver education course in the nation, if not the world.
Had there been a crash that night we surely would have been going to funerals. Traveling 98 MPH on a first rain of the season’s wet hilly road with trees and cliffs on both sides clearly was tomorrow’s front page of devastation. My fellow church members would have been devastated; my son would have carried this for life; my wife, daughters and I would have been heartbroken and devastated forever. Our friends would have lived many days, weeks, months and years before coming to grips with their loss. Our business would have been finished and rightfully so. Our home and way of life would have also ended.
I am so very thankful at many levels that I was alerted to this type of behavior as soon as it started. I still question why I woke up that evening. I’m confident that I stopped this the first time it happened. In fact I checked the history of all alerts of the tracker and did not find this abuse before this day.
History shows that teenagers will be involved with excessive speeds at least ten times before they are caught by the local police. Many times something bad happens before they are caught. Our in-class driver education program is visited by a local Police Officer named Steve. He talks to our students about sobriety, speeding through the neighborhoods and the devastation caused by careless driving. I saw him the next morning, at a community safety program. I shared with him what had happened the night before. He told me my story is always told after a terrible fatal crash and that is a story told too often. He said I know this could have an adverse effect on you and your company but the story here is that you headed it off the first time it happened.
You see, even with the very best driver education and training programs, the best of moms and dads that are well grounded with strong family values, this could happen to any of us; we need to understand that 17 year olds are still kids. This shouldn’t grant them a pass if something goes terribly wrong while the vehicle is under their control; however, it should raise the parent’s level of awareness that they are young and not the best decision-makers. Parents need complete awareness of everything their new driver is doing, every place they are going, every person that they will be traveling with and a detailed schedule of events even under the best conditions like mine.
Curfews should be enforced; passengers should be limited to 1 or 2 for teens under 18 years. If the new driver is involved with alcohol, marijuana or other drugs they should not be allowed to maintain a driver’s license. Zero tolerance.
These rules need to extend through the parents of the teenagers who become passengers. Make sure the driver is licensed, remember: no license, no insurance. Can a novice driver legally transport a passenger(s) in your state? Is the driver known by the parents of the passenger? If the answer to either question is "no" then permission to ride should not be granted. Under no circumstance should any parent give permission for their teenagers to ride in a vehicle where the driver or other passengers are users of alcohol or drugs.
Officer Steven said, “Not sharing this story would be the heartbreaker”. This story has a good ending. How can we help moms, dads and their teenagers to more good endings? How do we share this driver education lesson with everyone?
I had great concern in sharing this story, mostly because I do not want to embarrass my son. He is a good kid, and he has paid consequences for his poor decisions; however, he agreed that if this could save some young kids lives, it is worth sharing.
My son was sent back to an “in-class” (brick and mortar) driver education with a TEA certified driver education teacher at our school and he completed the class. He went to and from school by the school bus and mom and dad for several weeks. We allowed him to drive his car to and from school ONLY for several more weeks and did not allow any passengers whatsoever. We are now allowing him to travel to more activities, and transport friends to church events, school activities and other approved outings. We still maintain car tracker reports every day and will continue this until we feel confident in his decision making process.
I love my daughters and son very much. I would do anything for them and their children. What mom and dad wouldn’t want to help their child deal with self-inflicted damage? Being the cause of a crash would be a heavy, heart-felt burden to deal with for a lifetime. The thought of loss of life, limbs, vision or mobility for life would be a sentence for the driver in itself.
I asked my son if he would be prepared to help feed his friend who survived, help him to the restroom or maybe just change his bedpan. I asked how he would address his friend’s mom and dad when entering the room. I asked him how he would divide his life earnings to help pay the cost of taking care of this friend that was lucky enough to live. I asked him how he could pay for such a devastation. I asked him what he was thinking when he was racing down the street; I asked him if he thought I would catch him, knowing I had a car tracker on his car? I asked him why he took such a reckless chance with so many young lives in his hand.
He said, “I wasn’t thinking, I thought maybe there was a chance you wouldn’t see the alerts. I was just having fun and I didn’t think I would get caught.” He said, “I didn’t think about crashing or taking care of my friends who lived through it for life. I wasn’t thinking. We were having fun and did not mean to cause trouble.” He said “I’m very sorry dad, I won’t do it again. I promise you”. I do believe him. I believe that he will slow down and be more responsible. I will maintain the car tracker device, tight curfews and a vigilant of his friends.
I spoke with each one of the four teenagers who provided me with little or no explanation of why they allowed the driver to travel at such high speeds. One of the boys said it wasn’t my son’s fault. He said we could have said something to stop him but we encouraged him and I told him to “punch it”. My son replied “it is punched.” One of the young lady’s sitting in the front seat said she became ill from being so terrified; it took several hours for her stomach to settle.
Here are some facts;
The driver completed extensive driver education and training .
The driver had 100 additional coaching hours by certified instructor, (father).
There were no drugs or alcohol involved.
The vehicle was equipped with tracking notifications.
The bad driving behavior was stopped within 30 minutes of its start.
The other passengers did not stop the foolishness, they cheered it on.
We are dealing with 17 years old boys and girls so logic is off the table.
I published an article in 2002 regarding maturation of the prefrontal cortex, adolescent physiology and driving. The key paragraph of the article (below) identifies that the teenager nervous system is “under construction” until about age 25:
There are two pieces of the brain development in teenagers that we want to consider: speeding up nerve transmissions and eliminating unneeded nerve pathways. Until our early to mid twenties (in some cases early thirties), the nervous system is under construction. One of the last developments in the nervous system is the insulation of the nerves to make information travel faster through them. This process is called myelination.
During teen years, the nerves connecting the areas of the brain that control impulsiveness, process good judgment, and regulate emotion are finally insulated for faster transmissions. Those nerves that do not yet have the insulation coating have a definite influence on the driving skills of the adolescent or teen. As a result, their abilities to maintain full attention, recognize potential dangers, evaluate risky situations, and make good decisions are challenged. Read the complete article here.
Three weeks after I stopped my son, I learned of another family that experienced a very similar situation with their son and four teenagers, but this story did not have the same ending. As Officer Steven stated “We always hear about the crash that took several teenage lives, but we never get to hear about the lives that were spared because of preventive protective steps parents can take to lower the chances of a fatal crash.”
The story I am about to tell you is about Joseph Beer. I was once again devastated to learn about the Beer’s story; it was eerily similar to my story. Watching the O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly and the story he was going to unpack would convince me to tell you my story. This was the reverse of the story I just told you only with different names, a different place, a different set of circumstances and a dreadfully different outcome.
Joseph Beer, 17 years old, was driving with four teenagers, Christopher Kahn, 18, Darian Ramnarine, 19, Neal Rajapa, 17, and Peter Kanhai, 18, as passengers in the car speeding after midnight on wet streets twice the posted speed limit. He lost control of the vehicle, hit the trees at extremely high speeds, and split the vehicle in half killing all four of his friends. He alone walked away from the crash on October 8th, 2012, just 23 days after my son’s night out on his crazy drive.
There were several differences,
Joseph Beer did not have a driver’s license
Joseph Beer was allegedly high on marijuana, the 2nd most common drug involved in collisions
Joseph Beer did not have a car tracker for the parents to monitor
There was little chance that anyone would have known Joseph was driving carelessly
Joseph Beer’s parents trusted their son to do the right thing.
Joseph Beer’s friends did not stop him when he needed them most.
There were some things that remain the same
He was seventeen years old.
He was out having fun with friends -- he didn’t wake up and plan to kill anyone that day
His friends had a voice and they didn’t use it. They were older. They should have stepped up.
I don’t know what happened in Joseph Beer’s car that evening. I don’t know who brought the party favors to the party. What I do know, and I am sure on this issue, is that they were teens age 17 years old and older and they should not have been driving or riding at that hour. This late night driving should not have been allowed on any night including a school night. This was an error of parents who trusted their teen to do the right thing that evening.
Joseph Beer will never forget this night until the day he breaths his last. He caused the death of four teenagers. My son too could have been in the same position as Joseph Beer only 17 days before and he had all the training and documents which licensed him to drive. Marijuana was probably a factor for Joseph and the parents may have been a factor. The truth is they are seventeen years old and not one of 8 teenagers in either car said enough to stop the drivers, neither Joseph Beer nor my son, from driving so wrecklessly.
Let’s look at what has happened to Joseph Beer so far.
He was released from the hospital on October 10th, 2012, two days after his crash
The funerals began for the four teenagers on the same day
Nov. 16, 2012 Beer was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter and driving while impaired. Six weeks after the crash he is handcuffed and escorted to jail.
Beer faces 25 years in prison
Beer’s parents face time in confinement or service and each will pay a fine if convicted
Bail was set at $2 million and requires a cash deposit of $1 million posted. His parents could not afford the bail.
Mr. Beer will spend the next several years trying to put his life back together. He may spend the next 25 years trying to forgive himself for something he can’t undo.
We (parents) need to tighten up the rules. We need to raise our levels of security and awareness for violations of our family rules before our teens break laws. We need to install car trackers on the vehicles they drive, cancel the licenses of the teens that are smoking marijuana or using alcohol or any other drugs. We need to check out friends of our teens and we need to make sure we limit the number of teens in a vehicle of young drivers and make sure they are home at an early hour of the evening.
Tips for parents/beginning drivers
Students who drive often with their parents become great beginning drivers.
One year of driving experience is highly recommended before giving new teenage drivers their own vehicle.
Limit passengers and night driving. Know the passenger rule that is in effect in your state.
Negotiate a contract of acceptable behavior with the new driver that provides consequences and penalties for violations.
Have zero tolerance for moving violations, alcohol or marijuana use.
Everyone in the vehicle buckles up and no-texting apps are installed.
Parents/driving teachers set good examples.
If we (parents) don’t do this, our seventeen year olds will obey our examples over our words.
Our nation is now facing the new age of smart-phone and cellular texting. With the continued manufacturing of faster vehicles and speed limits rising to 85 mph in Texas we are now at a point that we need specialized monitoring for all of our children, our elder adults and our employees. We need to keep our eye on the ball so we could all live safer lives.