New business betting parents will pay to make teens better drivers

A group of North Jersey businessmen are launching a business based on fear — the fear of parents that their teenage drivers won’t know what to do if their car skids or spins out of control, or if they need to brake suddenly to avoid a collision.

Driving instructor Joe Casella with Ali Rosenblatt of Upper Saddle River on a test course in her family's minivan.

The group – which includes a racing instructor from Pequannock and a Franklin Lakes entrepreneur who has started and sold several companies – has created Drive Safer LLC, a Mahwah-based company that will offer hazardous driving courses geared toward new drivers.

The company plans to hold the first class May 19 on a course laid out in a rented parking lot at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, and charge $199 and up for the nearly four-hour course, which will teach teens how to control their vehicles when they need to swerve, stop suddenly, or steer out of a skid. They also have plans in the works to hold courses at Englishtown Raceway and in Philadelphia.

“Teens simply don’t have the skills and the abilities they need to survive on the road when they leave their driver’s ed program or their six-hour driving lessons,” said Jason Friedman, one of the founders. “When they’re going 60 miles an hour down a highway and they hit some black ice or there’s a pothole or someone swerves into their lane, they really don’t have the skills to handle that. We want them to have that ‘Oh, my God’ moment on a closed course with an instructor sitting next to them.”

Friedman and his partners are confident that every parent of a teen driver will want their child to have those skills. What’s less certain is whether enough parents will pay for them to acquire them.

Crash-prevention training programs for teens in other parts of the country tend to be run as non-profit ventures, or as one-time events by driver-education groups. A Massachusetts-based company that started a similar enterprise in 2003 decided after eight years that the only way to sustain the effort was to convert to non-profit status.

“The reality is, as a society we don’t take driving particularly seriously,” said Dan Strollo, president of the In Control Family Foundation, in Wilmington, Mass. “We refer to them as accidents, but most of the time they’re crashes that could have been avoided.”

Another challenge for a teen-based crash-prevention business is there could be a limited number of teens with parents willing to pay the fee.

The Drive Safer company was born when Friedman and his business partner, Andrew Groelinger of North Haledon, developed an interest in high-performance racing and got to know Joe Casella of Pequannock, a former race car driver and current racing instructor and regional director for the National Auto Sports Association (NASA). They went to some teen-driving clinics Casella organized, and saw the benefit for parents and their children.

The parents who signed their children up for those clinics “had the absolute fear of God in their eyes,” Friedman said. The teen drivers arrived with false bravado, but were shaky and unsure of themselves behind the wheel. After taking the NASA course, he said, the teens emerged with new skills and a respect for the vehicle.

“We saw this as a huge opportunity, and being entrepreneurs, we said to Joe, ‘Let’s help you take this to a much bigger place,’ ” Friedman said.

Friedman’s other businesses have included Creative Realities, a marketing company in Fairfield, which he sold in 2008; a sleep diagnostic center; and a media software platform that powers digital advertising signs at malls. He also owns Track Pro Advisors, an online community for motor sports enthusiasts.

Friedman believes the Drive Safer team can make teen crash prevention courses a national business. Others who have tried, he said, haven’t been able to “systemize it and roll it out to scale, and we aim to do that.”

Strollo, of the In Control organization, said he hopes the Drive Safer group is successful because the need for the training is great. But his experience has been that large numbers of parents are not rushing to spend the time or money to participate in these programs. Toyota and tire companies such as Bridgestone offer free crash-prevention programs “and they can’t fill it,” Strollo said. “You’re offering something that people don’t think they need,” he said.

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