CARS HOMES JOBS

Young motorists hit the road

Teachers stay calm behind the wheel with their own brake

Monday, July 9, 2012
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A nervous Taylor Zimmerman, 16, of Ballston Lake gets behind the wheel with Bell's Driving School instructor Mike Mareno at a summer driver's education class at Shenendehowa High School.
A nervous Taylor Zimmerman, 16, of Ballston Lake gets behind the wheel with Bell's Driving School instructor Mike Mareno at a summer driver's education class at Shenendehowa High School.

— Everybody off the roads! There’s a new batch of student drivers out there. Summer driver’s education programs started last week throughout the region and many teens, shiny new learner’s permits in hand, are sliding behind the steering wheel for the very first time.

William Cassidy, a driver’s ed teacher at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, has been coaching fledgling drivers since 1988. He enjoys spending time with the students and gets a feeling of satisfaction from teaching them the rules of the road, but every day’s an adventure, he said.

“It used to be I’d go home and I’d tell my wife, ‘Well, today we almost got nailed,’ and I’d tell her what happened and after a while she said, ‘Please don’t tell me anymore,’ ” he recounted.

The driver’s ed program, which is regulated by the New York State Department of Education and the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, consists of 24 hours of classroom instruction, 18 hours of in-car observation and six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction. The vehicles used for the program have a brake pedal on the passenger’s side for use by the instructor if things get dicey, but other than that, the young driver is in complete control.

Parents often ask Cassidy how he can stand riding shotgun with so many neophyte drivers.

“I say, ‘Well, I’ve got a brake on my side. God bless you people. A lot of you don’t have access to a brake unless you have a hand brake in the car or something. I say you’re the ones who are heroes. I don’t think I would do this job if I didn’t have a brake,’ ” he said.

Forty students are admitted into the driver’s ed program at BH-BL High School each summer. They’re chosen based on their grade level and age, said Dan LeClaire, assistant high school principal. Not only do they receive valuable instruction that can help them pass their road test, but taking the course has other perks as well, he said. Those who pass it and complete a total of 50 hours of supervised driving can get a senior license at age 17, a year earlier than they could otherwise, and some insurance companies offer discounts on premiums to course graduates.

Case of the nerves

Driving instruction starts out slowly. First the students motor around the school’s parking lot, then progress to a straight road. Eventually, turns come into play, followed by lane changes on busier roads, parallel parking and three-point turns. Cassidy also takes his students to practice on the roundabouts at Northway Exit 12.

“I had an occasion one time when a girl was so petrified, I swear we went around the roundabout about five times because she didn’t want to make a move,” he recalled.

When students finally make it out of the roundabout and onto the exit ramp, things can get even scarier.

“I had a girl getting on the Northway one time at Exit 13. She had never been on the Northway before. So we were coming down the ramp and she looks over and sees an 18-wheeler right in her immediate lane that she’s going to enter,” Cassidy recounted.

He cautioned the teen not to slam on the brakes because there were other cars behind them that could rear-end their vehicle.

“Well, she doesn’t do that, what she does is she takes her hands off the wheel, turns to me, throws her hands up in the air and says, ‘What do I do now?’ and meanwhile the car is going all over the place and I’m trying to grab the wheel,” he said.

Brian Larson, an instructor for Bell’s Auto Driving School in Clifton Park, has also had his share of hair-raising adventures while instructing teen drivers.

Bell’s contracts with high schools including Shenendehowa, Saratoga Springs, Shaker, The Albany Academy, Mohonasen, Bethlehem and Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons. The company has 24 cars with dual-control brakes and 24 instructors, said office manager Terri Benway.

Larson has seen many kids show up at driver’s ed with bad driving habits that they’ve learned from their parents.

“For example, stopping at stop signs. They do what’s called a California roll. They stop for half a second and then they keep going. Totally illegal. If you’re going to pass the road test, you have to come up to the stop sign, stop before the crosswalk and wait three seconds. I bet if you look around in average traffic, the average person doesn’t wait three whole seconds,” he said.

Distraction danger

Students also often attempt to maneuver around cars that are waiting to make a left-hand turn, said Larson.

“You can’t pass on the right. You can’t drive on the shoulder, but parents do it all the time. They teach their children to do it,” he said.

Deprogramming bad habits is just one of the challenges a driver’s ed teacher faces. Another is trying to keep flighty teenagers focused.

“You have four students in the car. They’re laughing, they’re talking, they’re doing all the normal things that 16-year-olds do and the one that’s driving wants to be part of that whole conversation and everything else, and you’ve got to keep redirecting them to keep their eyes on the road,” Larson said.

Although he doesn’t like to use it, Larson said the extra brake comes in mighty handy in the driver’s ed mobile.

“They’ll start to pull out and you’ll jump on the brakes and say, ‘Didn’t you see that truck coming?’ and they’ll say, ‘Truck? I didn’t see a truck,’ ” he recounted.

Gory films featuring auto accidents used to be a classroom staple in driver’s ed programs, meant to scare students into wearing seat belts and driving responsibly, but Cassidy said he shies away from them now, because kids aren’t so easily shocked anymore.

“It’s almost like they’re entertained. I’ve had kids say, ‘Oh, show it again in slow motion,’ and ‘Run it backwards.’ I don’t think that has as much meaning as it used to,” he said.

A combination of patient instruction and plenty of practice is the best way to create safe drivers, the instructors agree.

“I’m such a believer in driver’s education,” Larson said. “I’ve had students that came in that just had a ton of bad habits. By the time you spend 24 hours in a car with them and 24 hours in a classroom, they know at that point.”

 
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