Ready For The Road – Tragedy Drives Former Officer To Create Simulator-Based Training For Teens

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Tina Dodd doesn’t mince words when it comes to the gravity of teens driving.

“These vehicles are weapons. They’re weapons,” says Dodd, founder and owner of Drive Alert Training Academy in Greenville.

Tina Dodd's uses computer simulators (as well as one-on-one time behind the wheel of a car) to teach teens and others to drive.Tina Dodd's uses computer simulators (as well as one-on-one time behind the wheel of a car) to teach teens and others to drive.

Tina Dodd’s uses computer simulators (as well as one-on-one time behind the wheel of a car) to teach teens and others to drive.

“In the military … in law enforcement … we train with simulations before we go into any high-risk environment. Why are we not giving kids the same opportunity?”

So, Dodd decided to steer aspiring drivers that direction. Before her students sit behind the wheel of a real car on a real road in real time, they take a seat behind a computer screen that simulates a variety of challenges.

Long before her driving school became a reality, Dodd spent eight years in the military. She landed in South Carolina in the early 1990s, then spent 16-plus years working in state law enforcement and the Greenville Police Department before becoming a federal law enforcement agent in 2008.

Dodd worked primarily out of Washington, D.C., and Florida but also deployed three times to Afghanistan and other hostile environments.

Each week that she was stateside, Dodd would nap after work on Fridays, drive to Greenville, and train young drivers on Saturdays and Sundays. Then she’d head back.

“I did that for six and a half years without a day off,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to quit. I can’t tell you how many times I was exhausted driving back at 2 or 3 in the morning and had to pull over to the side of the road because I couldn’t make it to an exit to take a nap.”

That commitment was based on a life-altering tragedy. Dodd was on duty as a police officer one night in 2007 when she witnessed a young driver pull into the road and strike another car.

Three teenagers died.

“I have been exposed to death in my career. But that incident prompted a lot of emotion,” says Dodd, whose son was then the same age as the teens.

“When the parents arrived, I did everything in my power to prevent them from seeing the condition that their children were in.”

Dodd’s ex-husband was one of the first responders at the scene. And officers all over the city listened to the call on their radios. Dodd’s sergeant was working another job. “The vehicle description was similar to his daughter’s vehicle. To hear him, to hear his emotions ….” But she says she couldn’t immediately reassure him.

Dodd says she doesn’t know whether the young driver had taken drivers education. But her own son was on the waiting list for driver training at his school for four years and never made it into a class.

“That’s when the seed was planted,” she says.

Dodd began researching drivers education and trainer certification. She changed her college major to business instead of criminal justice and carried a notepad to jot down advice from other businesspeople and, later, counselors at SCORE (Senior Corps of Retired Executives), and her ministers.

“I struggled. I didn’t know what my purpose was. Then I got the call to go federal,” she says.

Her purpose became clear during an assignment in South America. Dodd’s phone hadn’t rung in 40 days because the area was so remote. She was reading “The Purpose Driven Life” for the second time, and she was praying.

Before dawn one morning, she says she experienced an epiphany. “I knew that this is what I needed to be doing.” Her phone began ringing with calls and texts from people offering encouragement and help. “In the jungle in the Amazon. I can’t make that up.”

In 2012, Dodd started refurbishing a space at 1325 Miller Road, off Woodruff Road. She opened in 2013 with 14 driving simulators – like flight simulators.

That’s one of her mottos: Learn how to drive the way pilots learn to fly.

Now retired from law enforcement, Dodd and other instructors offer eight classes a month – mostly to teenagers, but also people who have immigrated from other countries, who drive company vehicles, or who have been ordered to take driver training by courts. Mature drivers sometimes take classes to assess their skills.

Dodd’s passion hasn’t waned.

“Nobody wants to talk about the numbers of young people who are perishing in vehicle collisions. We’ve become conditioned to it,” says Dodd, who is on the Board of Directors of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

From 2017 through 2021, about 694,000 collisions occurred in South Carolina; 111,000 involved teen drivers; and a teen driver was involved in 564 of the 16,000 collisions with fatalities, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety.

South Carolina requires that teens take drivers education – unless they are over the age of 17. Then, they can obtain licenses after passing the written test and driving test administered by the Department of Motor Vehicles. “They slip through the cracks,” Dodd says.

Teens can begin drivers education at the age of 14 years and 10 months. They can take the written test, obtain a permit and drive with a licensed adult at 15 years old. Six months later, they can take the road test. A parent must attest that the teen has had 40 hours of practice, including 10 hours of nighttime driving.

That’s no guarantee that the driver is ready for the road, Dodd says.

“We’re giving them access to drive a vehicle with only six months of training – if they receive that,” she says.

At Drive Alert Training Academy, students get eight hours of lecture and simulator time and six hours driving with an instructor. Then parents are expected to take over.

“We make it fun. But they’re learning. We put them in situations where they’re texting and driving. They’re distracted. They’re adjusting their radio. They’re eating,” Dodd says.

Students wear goggles to simulate drunken driving.

With simulators, Tina Dodd and other instructors at Drive Alert Training Academy can (virtually) expose future drivers to dangerous road conditions and unexpected hazards.With simulators, Tina Dodd and other instructors at Drive Alert Training Academy can (virtually) expose future drivers to dangerous road conditions and unexpected hazards.

With simulators, Tina Dodd and other instructors at Drive Alert Training Academy can (virtually) expose future drivers to dangerous road conditions and unexpected hazards.

The screens show the consequences. “Then we home in on the emotional side,” she says. “‘Can you deal with the trauma if you survive, but someone else has been injured or killed?’”

As an entrepreneur, Dodd has also learned. Her advice to other fledgling business owners is to ask for help … not just the spiritual kind. In addition to SCORE, she sought assistance from CommunityWorks and the Small Business Administration.

“It’s ludicrous not to seek the wisdom from individuals who have already paved a path, especially because their services are free. Every resource you need is out there.”

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Ready For The Road – Tragedy Drives Former Officer To Create Simulator-Based Training For Teens