Police in Kennewick now teach driving school

KENNEWICK -- A new driving school in Kennewick gives students hands-on demonstrations of how dangerous it can be to let their attention wander from the road.

One classroom exercise requires students to look for a ringing cell phone and read a text message, and see how long that pulls their attention away from driving.

For most students, it's three-fourths of a second just to react to the ringing, and another six seconds or so to find the phone and read the message.

The whole exercise takes about seven or eight seconds, said Mike Beckelhymer, principal of 911 Driving School.

Seven or eight seconds at 60 mph can translate into as much as 640 feet of pavement -- a pretty long distance for someone to have their eyes off the road fishing for a phone or fiddling with a radio tuner.

"That's the length of two football fields," Beckelhymer said.

The school, which opened three weeks ago on Canal Drive near Columbia Center Boulevard, uses a combination of the hands-on exercises and real world police experience to teach teenagers how to safely enter the world of driving.

All of the school's instructors are working or retired police officers or Washington State Patrol troopers, which Beckelhymer said gives a dimension to the instruction that resonates with students.

The original 911 Driving School was started in Puyallup by a couple of police officers who got tired of being called to crashes involving teens, he said.

"They felt they could do a better job because they do this for a living," he said.

They eventually expanded and created a franchise, and now there are 23 of the schools nationwide.

Beckelhymer said most of the franchises are owned by police officers, and he's one of the few nonpolice businessmen to invest.

But having put four teenagers of his own through driving school, he saw an opportunity to give new drivers a better set of tools for coping with the hazards of the road.

"I was enchanted by what this offered," he said.

Retired Washington State Patrol trooper John "J.J." Pederson is one of the instructors, and said he thinks getting instruction from cops not only makes the hazards real for teens, but also builds better relationships among teens and law enforcement.

"I think they've got a conception about police that they're bad," Pederson said. "We're just like everybody else."

Pederson draws on his 36 years with the state patrol -- including time as a collision investigator dealing with serious injury and fatal accidents -- to reach his students.

"I've got a lot of stories to add," he said. "I can come up with thousands of stories. I use a different story every time."

The course involves 30 hours in the classroom, five hours of driving simulation and five hours on the road with an instructor.

Starting in January, the school also will offer defensive driving classes that can meet requirements placed on drivers by courts.

Registration is available online at 911drivingschool.com, and clicking "School Locations," "Washington" and "Tri-Cities."

The basic monthlong course starts at $450.

-- Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com