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Unique defensive driving class at Atlanta Motorsports Park puts student drivers on the track
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A student driver gears up for the distracted driving exercise at the last DrvieStrong class at Atlanta Motorsports Park - photo by Jacob Smith

From the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame to the Elliott family legacy, driving is ingrained in the culture of Dawson County. In Dawsonville, Atlanta Motorsports Park (AMP) preserves that spirit with their country club for racing and go-kart tracks. 

But with how deeply driving and racing are ingrained in the local culture, the need for defensive driving programs to teach young drivers safety of the road is all the more important. 

After suffering an accident with a young driver, Flip Crane, a counselor specializing in traumatology, realized this need and reached out to AMP on how they could collaborate to create a new type of defensive driving course. 

“Even though it wasn’t my fault, I still knew there was something that could be done to keep that sort of stuff from happening,” Crane said. 

From that experience, Crane founded DriveStrong, a hands-on driving course where students four of the six-hour class behind the wheel of one of the non-profit’s donated BMW’s.

Inside the vehicles, the DriveStrong instructors have no set of controls on their side. Crane said this is because their knowledge of cars lets them know what’s going to happen before it does. 

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The drivers wait inside their cars for the exercises to begin - photo by Jacob Smith

“I understand what works with kids,” Crane said. “If they’re safe and having fun, learning is going to be a by-product.” 

Crane, a competitive driver himself, has been running two classes a month for the last six years. The program currently averages around 1,000 drivers a year and has served over 3,000 drivers total. Crane said that the waiting list was up to six months at one point last year.

The program starts off in the classroom with a one-hour introduction for the students to learn what they will be doing, along with important safety precautions to remember. 

The students then travel out to the course where they practice hands-on techniques, like highway emergency lane switch and use of the emergency brake. 

“We’re not teaching them racing by any means, but having this course here allows us to do the things that we do here,” Crane said. “You can’t go and teach somebody how to do an emergency lane change on 285 because they’d cause an accident. We can do it here because there’s nobody driving around us.”

During their lunch break, a law enforcement official spoke with the students about the specific laws they should understand before taking to the streets. After this lecture, one student said that he was unaware of a lot of things the officer mentioned and was glad that he was told. 

After lunch, students got to practice getting their car back under control while hydroplaning, while on the other side of the track, the instructors shouted and threw things out onto the track while the student driver attempted to send a text. 

“We couldn’t be happier that we were able to get into the class today,” parent Donald Harvey said after his son Michael completed the course. “Especially with [Michael] turning 18, it’s a good thing to have under your belt.” 

Six years after it’s inception, DriveStrong is preparing to build it’s own complex onsite at AMP, to maximize the number of classes they can host throughout the year. Their funding campaign started two weeks ago and at the one week mark, funding was at the 70% mark. 

Crane said that this complex would open up advanced classes that pick up where the current DriveStrong program leaves off, with more behind-the-wheel training. He added that the most asked question from parents is how they can take the course. With the addition of the facility, DriveStrong would be able to offer a parent program as well. 

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Instructor helps a student who is on the distracted driving simulation - photo by Jacob Smith

As DriveStrong keeps expanding, Crane said he looks forward to when they have enough classes where thousands of students can be reached and learn the importance of defensive driving. 

“Every student that finishes the program has more confidence,” Crane said. “Not overly confident, but more confident behind the wheel. I’ll get emails from parents on a normal basis about how kids are putting things into place in their daily driving. That’s how we know what’s worth it.