Arlington High School teacher and traffic safety coordinator James Brooke is the Washington Traffic Safety Education Association Teacher of the Year. (Contributed photo)

Arlington High School teacher and traffic safety coordinator James Brooke is the Washington Traffic Safety Education Association Teacher of the Year. (Contributed photo)

His job in Arlington is teaching teenagers how to drive

James Brooke talks about life beyond the giant “student driver” sticker.

Arlington High School’s James Brooke was named the Cliff Boyce Teacher of the Year in Traffic Safety by the Washington Traffic Safety Education Association.

We have talked to Brooke before about how traffic safety education has changed. This time, we focus more on him — and how he braves getting into a vehicle with a newbie driver.

Question: What was your reaction to the award?

Answer: It was a complete surprise. I didn’t even know I was nominated. I was very honored and privileged. It was one of the few times in my life I was without words. They asked if I had anything to say and I was dumbfounded. I had the two-minutes-later “genius” moment, of course …

Q: This award recognizes teachers who “go above and beyond.” You make a point of involving parents. Tell me about that.

A: Our school district started that second parent night. All schools have a parent night, and most are doing information — “this is what we’re about” — which we do, too, which is wise. … But the second one is a speaker panel from the Snohomish County DUI Task Force. It’s mandatory for the parents and students to go to both of those nights.

… Hopefully those parents and students will go home and have a conversation about “what do we need to do so that we don’t have that happen in our family?” We started that in ’94 with the Snohomish County sheriff and then just added more speakers and over time it got more elaborate.

Q: We’ve talked before about the push to bring back driver education programs in schools and increase class and driving time requirements. Do you see any progress toward that?

A: Since the state took the funding away, more students have been waiting until they are 18 to get their license. They have new evidence showing those students are involved in 80 to 90 percent more crashes than a kid who took driver education.

I feel like the public is starting to find a greater need for it. … They’re going to see more and more of that statistic lived out. Maybe the public and Legislature will say, “Yeah, driver education has a value and let’s fund it.” I might be seeing the pendulum swing back to the “golden years” — where they say, “What’s best for students?”

I appreciate our high school principals, I appreciate the district administrators, I appreciate the school board — because they allowed us to have a program here when so many other communities said goodbye. They made the decision that wasn’t popular. Now it’s starting to swing back.

Q: Getting into a big hunk of moving metal with a teenager sounds incredibly frightening. How do you do it?

A: It’s funny because we do have a brake on our side. We can stop it at any time, knock it out of gear, and grab the steering wheel to control the car. When I practiced with my daughter in my car without a brake? That was terrifying. That was a whole new respect for my parents. … I tried to put my foot through the floor. So parents have a different perspective than I do, not having that brake.

People see the giant “student driver” sticker. They tend to stick away from us like we’re the plague. So that helps too.

Q: Any tips for parents of teenage drivers?

A: Make sure they do take a traffic safety course. Don’t have them wait until they’re 18. Or if they wait, that’s fine — they can still take a traffic safety course.

Experience is the key that they need. If parents can practice with them as much as possible — not 5 or 10 hours, but 50, 60, 100 hours of practice time… And what that experience is matters too. They need real-world, everyday driving.

Q: This isn’t all you teach.

A: I teach special ed during the day. I’ve been a teacher since ’88, all in special ed, and in traffic safety since ’94.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: My family and I are going to spend more time over at Desert Aire on the Columbia River. Motorcycle riding. And involvement in church. The specific ministry is called HUGE Men of God — that’s a big passion of mine. It’s about “Honoring God, Unifying Men, Growing in Christ and Equipping Disciples.”

Q: Last question: What kind of car do you drive (and do you like it)?

A: I have a preference for the Chevy Malibu. It’s a big enough car so I can fit some big football players, but it’s got good gas mileage and a good safety rating, and a lot of just great features to it. I saw a video once where parents were saying, you know, “in the old days cars were built of steel and bulletproof.” They took a Chevy Malibu in a head-on with one of these 1960s, ’70s Lincoln-type cars. The Malibu, it crumpled up just to the windshield. The cab was intact. The Lincoln, the Malibu went all the way into the back seat.

Street Smarts: streetsmarts@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3432.

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