Students learn the importance of driving safely

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By Kathryn Jacewicz, Staff writer

This updates includes a correction version.  The previous version attributed information to an incorrect name.


SHALLOTTE—It takes more than knowing the signs and rules of the road before being eligible to apply for a state permit or driver’s license.

North Carolina students younger than 18 must complete drivers’ education before applying for a permit and license. Students must partake in a 30-hour classroom training, where they learn all the pertinent information for the actual test—traffic signs, driving skills and knowledge—as well information about car maintenance and control. Six of the 30 hours must be focused on driving under the influence information.

Debra Hollis, of Brunswick Driving School, teaches a 10-day drivers’ education course at all three county high schools, and said while the course is intensive for the students, it takes a lot of volunteers and many volunteered hours to make it possible.

Hollis teaches the courses continually throughout the year, so many of her guest speakers come and present every two weeks, for an hour or two each time.

Trooper Reeves of the Highway Patrol volunteers to speak to Hollis’ classes during nearly every session. Reeves shows the students a compilation of accident photos from fatal Brunswick County accidents—most of which could have been avoided by wearing a seat belt. Reeves said the photos are graphic and he makes every student look at them and see the result of a high-impact crash.

“My hope is every time you get in that car you buckle your seat belt, because the second you don’t, this picture pops into your head,” he tells the students.

Reeves said if his message can reach even one student, all the hours of volunteering are worth it.

“If I’ve reached one kid, I’ve done my job,” he said.

Two more regular speakers in Hollis’ drivers education courses are Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hakey and Staff Sgt. Jason Russell, from the Army base at Sunny Point.

Hakey has been a train engineer in the Army for more than 20 years, and said he volunteers his time to teach students about driving safety and trains due to what he’s seen while on the railroads.

The two are part of Operation Lifesaver, a train safety program that teaches the importance of being alert and aware in the presence of trains.

Hakey shared a story with the students about a truck that tried to cross the track when his train was coming. His train hit the truck, and killed three little girls inside it. During another trip, two girls were walking along the tracks with their backs turned to the train, both listening to iPods. One heard the train and one did not. Both were struck and killed.

After applying the brake, “There’s nothing more I can do as an engineer,” he said.

Hakey told the students every 90 minutes across the country, there’s a train accident. And most often, those accidents occur within 25 minutes of the victim’s home.

If a train sees a vehicle in its path or sees someone in it’s way, it often takes too long to stop and an accident is unavoidable. A typical train, Hakey said, weighs about 12 million pounds, and when traveling at a speed of 55 mph, takes about a mile—18 football fields—to come to a complete stop.

“When I want to stop my train in downtown Southport, I begin to apply the brakes in Boiling Spring Lakes,” he said.

The impact of a train on a car is equivalent to a can running over a 12-ounce soda can.

“Most of the time, I don’t even feel it,” Hakey said of hitting a vehicle. “I don’t even feel a bump.”

Russell told the students most of the train accidents happen at railroad crossings that have flashing warning lights and safety gates. While many vehicles choose to go around the gates, Russell said this is not only dangerous but also illegal.

A driver caught going around gates can receive up to four tickets—one for disobeying warning lights, one for crossing on a legally closed road, one for being in the oncoming traffic lane while going around the gate and one for trespassing, as the rail is considered to be a private road.

People walking along railroad tracks at any time can expect to be ticketed if seen by a public official. The railroad is private property, owned by the railroad companies.

Tyler Benton, ninth-grader, said he knew most of the information presented by Hakey and Russell, but he didn’t realize trains moved so fast.

Kayla Taylor, ninth-grader, said she used to play on the railroad tracks when she lived in New York.

“Now I’m not,” she said, not realizing how powerful a train’s impact on a vehicle or human really is.

Hakey said train operators should expect to be involved in at least one accident or fatality in their careers, but after it happens, it can leave a lasting impression that’s hard to shake.

“I was out of work for a month after my first [fatality],” he said. “As a train engineer, you have to list with that emotionally. We don’t want to hurt another person.”

So Hakey and Russell volunteer their time to teach train safety to new drivers and also to local civic groups and organizations throughout the county.

“We will drive two hours in any direction and cater our presentation to any group,” he said. “We’re trying to take a proactive approach to see this doesn’t happen.”

Becky Mooney of the Brunswick County Concerned Bikers Association also visits the drivers’ education classes every two weeks to teach students the importance of safety while sharing the road with motorcyclists.

“We as bikers can feel a little safer out on the road knowing we’re promoting safety,” she said.

Mooney said she and her husband have both been in accidents and have had many friends die while riding. She said bikers are often not seen until it’s too late, and students are taught to look left, look right and look left again before making a turn. More often than not, motorcyclists are killed when a car makes a left-hand turn in front of one and doesn’t see it.

“Look for the mouse, not the elephant,” she tells the students. “Motorcycles are often hidden behind larger vehicles.”