From training Secret Service agents to teenagers, driving instructor has one goal

Chip Sheehan has never been scared while driving in a car.

He's chauffeured foreign nationals and world leaders throughout the country as a member of the Secret Service.


He's trained drivers for Presidents Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama how to operate the Presidential limousine, commonly referred to as "the Beast," at high speeds.

Now, he jumps into cars with teenagers learning how to drive throughout Baltimore, Carroll, and Howard counties.


Despite the differences in Sheehan's experiences, he says the goal of each has always been the same.

"Whether we're taking someone's child out or a world leader, you want to make sure it's done safely," he said.

Sheehan, a retired Secret Service driving instructor, is now the President of Street Smarts of Maryland, a local driver's education program based in Howard County.

Street Smarts is offered at 12 high schools in the region, including Century, Liberty and South Carroll high schools in Carroll County.

The Buffalo native started Street Smarts six years ago. The company consists of more than 30 current and former law enforcement agents who lead the in-class and on-road training sessions.

Since its inception in 2008 with four cars and five students, Street Smarts has grown to the point where just under 2,000 students participated in the program last year.

"Obviously, I'm real proud of it," Sheehan said of the program's growth. "I hope the next year we do 3,000."

Sheehan, who retired from the Secret Service in 2013, said his daughter's experience with a driving instructor led him to found Street Smarts.

While he was away on assignment, his daughter took driving lessons, which included stops at local convenience stores for lottery tickets and cigarettes.

"I teach our instructors when they come on that this job is too important to be caught doing something dumb like that," Sheehan said.

Sheehan hails from a family of teachers. His parents once even owned a teacher supply business.

When he just missed the cut to become a state trooper, Sheehan set his eyes to the Secret Service. While he had the intention of becoming a firearms instructor, he was assigned to classroom instruction in 1984.


Although disappointed, he called the assignment a "blessing in disguise."

"Quickly after that, the position opened up for driver training and they didn't have anyone out there," he said.

From there, Sheehan traveled the country, auditing other agencies' driving programs and creating the Secret Service's program.

Drivers had previously been trained by other agencies, Sheehan said.

Training for Secret Service drivers is a weeklong session in Laurel, which follows routine training with the agency.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but 40 hours of driving is a lot especially when you have such a small class," he said.

Classes include six students with eight instructors.

Training includes day and night driving sessions, training on a skid car to simulate icy or snowy conditions, and includes practice driving through car accidents among other scenarios.

Sheehan said ideal candidates are people with "controlled aggression."

"If something does happen, most of us can drive, but can you drive under pressure and with control," he said.

While Sheehan's career has kept him around cars for much of his life, he isn't a self-proclaimed car fanatic. He drives a Chevrolet Suburban and his wife has a Nissan Altima.

"You can open my garage and you'll find golf clubs and hockey sticks," he said with a laugh.

But, the beauty of being in his position with the Secret Service, he had access to any car.

"I was like a kid in a candy store," he said.

While Street Smarts has done no advertising since its inception, Sheehan credits the growth in part to partnerships with the schools' booster clubs. If the booster clubs advertise Street Smarts, the company in return pays a referral fee to be used for school programs.

Street Smarts has donated just under $170,000 to are high schools since its founding.

For Armando Diferdinando, a West Friendship parent of three children who attended Street Smarts, if Sheehan can drive the president, "he's good enough to drive my kids."

"Knowing that he had taught the Secret Service, made it very reassuring," he said of sending his children to Street Smarts.

Diferdinando, who was referred to Sheehan by a friend, said all of his children had a "very good experience."

"He goes the extra mile, no pun intended," he said.

Rachael Rockefeller, a 17-year-old Century High School junior, acknowledged that driving school was not something she was necessarily looking forward to but the Street Smarts program was "very interesting at times."

She said that was because it is run by law enforcement officers.

"You know what he's telling you is legit, it's real," she said.

One difference in training drivers for the Secret Service and teenagers is their attention level, Sheehan said.

In a Secret Service class, students paying attention is a given. In high school classrooms, not as much.

"You have to make it interesting for them and make sure that they understand it," Sheehan said.

Like many other people, Sheehan said his biggest pet peeve of drivers on the road is distracted driving.

"Just because you have a license, that doesn't make you a good driver anymore than having a football makes you a quarterback," he said.

Reflecting on his career, picking out some of his favorite memories is like picking a favorite song for Sheehan.

"Looking back at my career, that I had access to the president's car keys and a key to the White House, that's pretty impressive," Sheehan said.

For more information on Street Smarts, visit http://www.streetsmartsmd.com.

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