- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

Learning to drive is a rite of passage for most teens, a time of expanding freedom coupled with the responsibilities inherent in commanding a car.

Problem is, not everyone learns to drive during his or her high school years.

For those who missed out on their school’s complementary driver education classes, have no fear.

A quick Web search reveals the Greater Washington area offers dozens of driver education schools, many of which employ teachers who speak a variety of languages, from Spanish to Farsi.

Rita Portocarrero, an instructor with the Driving Academy in Springfield, says abrupt life changes often steer students who never so much as stepped on a car brake to her classes.

“Sometimes you have a 65-year-old lady whose husband passes away,” Miss Portocarrero says. For other, younger students, the change happens after college, when their first job isn’t Metro accessible.

She says female students, young and old, often request a female instructor with whom they will feel more comfortable.

That comfort level can dip when the lessons involve making turns.

“They either take them too fast or too slow,” she says of one of the biggest challenges new drivers must overcome.

Prices for driving instruction fluctuate, depending on whether the course is a one-time session or part of a pack of classes.

So do driving requirements, which differ from state to state.

Sharon Luckett, owner of A Cool New Driving School in Annapolis, says new drivers in Maryland must attend 30 hours of classroom lectures and undergo 60 hours of actual driving-time lessons before they can secure a license.

The laws, Ms. Luckett says, vary from country to country, too.

“In the Annapolis area, we get quite a few calls from mothers and fathers who hired a nanny but found out they only had an international license and they can’t drive very well,” she says.

Ms. Luckett also finds a fair number of military members knocking on her classroom door.

“They never used to be required to have a state license, and now they are. … I get a couple of midshipmen every year,” says Ms. Luckett, who adds that she also teaches students directed by the judicial system to take classes to amend for one too many speeding tickets or other traffic infractions.

Every age group offers its own complications in the automobile learning curve.

Adult driving students “are really afraid. They feel they can’t do it. They’re very negative,” Ms. Luckett says.

Younger drivers, by comparison, have other issues to work through.

“They’re learning to multitask in a way they never had to before,” she says.

Debbie DeFranco, supervisor of health and physical education with the Arlington School District, says the teen drivers in Arlington’s driver education classes often have trouble dealing with the task at hand.

“The whole cell phone, radio, everything else. … It’s a challenge to maintain a focus on the road,” Mrs. DeFranco says.

The messages delivered to them sound similar to advice geared to drivers of any age.

Arlington instructors advise students against relying solely on class time to pick up the right skills.

“Just like any course, you need to practice. You can’t just drive for those seven or eight hours and expect to be an experienced driver,” Mrs. DeFranco says.

It’s best to find a neutral party with whom to train, she suggests.

“It’s nice to have someone who’s not a family member to do your basic instruction. They’re not gonna use that car time to talk about other behaviors they find inappropriate,” she says.

The rules of the road for District dwellers aren’t nearly as bumpy as some of its streets.

Jules Kontchou, owner of Dexterity Driving in the District, says new drivers older than 21 don’t have to submit to any class sessions before trying for a driver’s license. That doesn’t mean those students are ready for the test, though, which is where programs such as Dexterity Driving come in.

Mr. Kontchou, who says students often struggle with turning and parallel parking, advises budding drivers to keep a keen eye on the road when they are passengers.

Student drivers should learn to spot driving mistakes made by others and then figure out what they could have done to prevent them. He says that kind of proactive thinking, a spin on the typical defensive driving strategy, will improve one’s driving abilities.

Tom Pecoraro, president of I Drive Smart in Bethesda, says driver education courses aren’t necessarily meant for novice drivers alone.

“What we stress is that driving is a perishable skill. If you don’t continually strive to improve your skills, they go away,” Mr. Pecoraro says. “As you age, you continually retrain and address those areas.”

Vehicle control remains the paramount goal for Mr. Pecoraro and his students.

“They either overdrive the vehicle or assume they’re more prepared than they actually are,” Mr. Pecoraro says.

One lesson any driver, novice or expert, should consider is the context behind speed limits, which are set based on conditions the average motorist may not routinely face.

“How often do you have those optimum driving conditions in the D.C. metro area?” he asks. “The volume of traffic on our roadways … they can’t absorb what we have already. You’re already at a disadvantage as a driver.”

Mr. Pecoraro says his classes don’t deal as much with, say, skid recovery as skid avoidance.

If a car is skidding, it’s already too late, he says.

It’s better to anticipate problems rather than teach how to lessen the blow of a bad decision.

“If you’re not a proactive driver, you’re reactive,” he says.

“What we stress is that driving is a perishable skill. If you don’t continually strive to improve your skills, they go away.”

—Tom Pecoraro, president of I Drive Smart

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