If you’ve been following me here, by now you’ve guessed that I’m a driving instructor. That’s why a lot of what I’ve been telling you sounds like lecturing and I’m afraid that’s what it is. Sorry, just can’t help myself. After more than 30 years of doing what I do I have, for better or worse, a reputation for being almost a fanatic about safe driving. Just ask my students.
If I had my way your car would have governor to keep it at the speed limit and everybody would be so brain-trained that there would be zero fatalities. That’s possible, you know. Those 30,000 or so traffic deaths a year are preventable.
People often ask me, “Don’t you get nervous working with beginners?” I usually point out that I’ve been doing this work for so long that I’m probably not as scared as I should be!
But, think about it:
(a) We’re usually dealing with a teen who, yes, may be new at it and a bit nervous but who is also trying very hard to impress not only the instructor – but mostly the other kids in the car
(b) He or she is sitting next to a professional who can take control in case something goes wrong
(c) We have special safety equipment in and on the car, such as an instructor brake, to help in emergencies.
With “student driver” signs plastered all over the car this is, as I have often argued with insurance carriers, probably the safest driving environment there is. Besides, I never ask students to do anything they’re not ready for or that I think will make them anxious.
Anyway, I’ve trained about 70,000 people in my schools over the years, in multiple states and in more than one language. About 80 percent were teens and the rest were adults who needed driver training for one reason or another.
As you can imagine, with all that behind me, I have some interesting tales to tell. Only a few were life threatening and most were funny. Actually, I’m writing a book about this. I was thinking of calling it “Confessions of a Driving Instructor.”
But, when I ran the first chapter past my writer-son recently, he asked, “Where’s the spicy stuff?” I said, “There isn’t any spicy stuff!” After a long moment he came back with, “Dad, I don’t know how to say this.”
“If I were you, son,” I replied, “Very carefully.”
After another reflective pause he said, “Maybe you better call it ‘Adventures of a Driving Instructor.’”
Whatever I end up calling it, there will be some interesting tales. Here’s a small example:
A very nice 68-year-old woman phoned us one day to inquire about driving lessons. She explained that, after nearly 50 years of marriage, she had been recently widowed. Her husband had always done the driving and now she needed to learn to drive so as to not have to depend upon friends and family. She had obtained her learner permit and was ready to go.
She was a fast learner and we progressed famously. About midway into Lesson Three; however, it became apparent that we had a small problem. It had to do with her left turns.
When a person has spent as long as she had riding shotgun, an interesting mindset sometimes comes into play. She got it into her mind that certain things just happen automatically.
Her left turns were perfect in all but one respect . . . the recovery. She would forget that she had to bring the steering wheel back to straight or, as we call it, the neutral position. I would have to take control of the wheel to get us back on track. This would not do. So, here’s what we did:
On Lesson Four, in a very large and empty parking lot, I set out some traffic cones to represent an intersection. As we approached my makeshift intersection I asked her to make a left turn. She signaled and executed the turn expertly but then she predictably failed again to correct. This time I just let things happen and into a giant left hand circle we swept!
We both began to laugh and she exclaimed, “I think I’ve got it!”
We returned to the streets, tried some more left turns and never had the problem again. She never forgot that lesson either.
Several years later we crossed paths at the supermarket. “Remember that lesson about left turns?” she asked with a laugh. “Every time I turn left, I think about that!”
“You were so patient with me,” so many students have declared, “I expected you to be so much different!”
I have a very simple rule for myself and my instructors. While driving may be routine for us, never forget that everything — EVERYTHING — is a new and often scary experience for a student. Impatience and anger have no place in this job. I have let more than one instructor go for ignoring this simple principle.
Teaching people to drive is a challenging and rewarding job. If I have said or done something that has helped save just one life or even prevented one injury, then it’s been well worth the trip.