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Ex-cop has unique methods for teaching teen drivers


Published: November 28, 2008

RETIRED AFTER three decades as a California Highway Patrol officer — including a stint as the governor’s personal driver — Pacific Grove resident Richard Richards is not your average driver’s ed teacher.

As an instructor with Drive Carmel, Richards is known to take his work to the next level. Sometimes, he’ll reach over and shut the car off as the student is driving, to simulate an emergency. He’ll have them pull up alongside CHP cars and talk to officers — many of whom he knows personally. He’ll even let students make mistakes, as long as the conditions are safe, so they’ll realize their errors and learn from them, and perhaps give up a little of the cockiness that tends to accompany adolescence.

The school not only provides classroom teaching, but field trips to traffic court, the DMV and to meet a mechanic. Students then select a driving instructor.

“Officer Richards,” as his students call him, retired from the CHP in 2005 and said he works not because he has to, but because he really wants to.

“I had other things I wanted to do with my retirement, but I found this was very satisfying and very necessary,” he said.

His career and wealth of experience yield driver’s training far beyond average.

“I talk constantly to these kids about what they should be doing and where they should be looking, and I ask them questions about where the danger is coming from.”

He takes time with the kids, so once they have the basics, he can teach them how to protect themselves.
“I can teach students how not to hit something, but the most difficult part is how to not let anybody hit them,” he said. “So many kids drive with blinders on.” They often don’t anticipate the actions of other motorists, or they might forget other people on the road make mistakes, are rude or in a hurry, and violate traffic laws.

But Richards has lots of real-life anecdotes to help hammer his points home. “I’ve had to deliver death notification to parents and have seen kids crunched in cars,” he said. “My last year on the highway patrol, I went to several fatal accidents involving teens.”

He also became familiar with the myriad causes of highway deaths. “Running off the road, over steering and excessive speed are huge on my list of things I think are correctable,” Richards said.

He has unique ways of helping them learn how to react to unanticipated problems, like running out of gas.

“I reach over and turn the key off, and immediately they start to hit the brake,” he said. That’s the wrong reaction, so he advises them to first activate the hazard lights and then use the car’s momentum to coast to a safe spot. “Sometimes they panic, because the steering becomes harder and the brakes become harder. I get the shock value I’m looking for.”

On other occasions when it’s safe, Richards will allow a student who’s making a mistake, such as turning from an incorrect lane, to commit it. In one case, the driver was going too quickly to stop for a red light. The error helped the student realize he has to pay closer attention while approaching intersections, and it perhaps humbled him as well.

Richards talks about avoiding road rage and what to do when being followed.

When he sees a CHP officer he knows parked alongside the road, Richards tells his student to pull alongside and speak with the cop. That positive interaction can offset the negative emotions often associated with law enforcement.

He talks about parents, explaining that if Mom and Dad refuse to loan out the car, it’s because they care, not because they want to punish. He encourages students to practice building their parents’ confidence in their ability to be responsible behind the wheel.

Richards also encourages the kids to back-seat drive.

“When they’re with their parents, and their parents are driving, I want the student to sit in the passenger seat and tell them where to go, which lane to be in, how fast to go,” he said. “That really helps them learn.”

He even coaches the parents, some of whom occasionally ride along.

“If you know your child is doing something wrong, you are remiss in not telling them,” he said. “If an accident is predictable, it’s preventable.”