ROAD WARRIORS With a driver’s license comes independence; the challenge is finding a way to share the streets with drivers of limited skill

JUST BECAUSE you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Few bumper stickers better define the sweaty-palmed, white-knuckled state of learning to drive. Driver’s education classrooms heighten pavement phobias: Students listen to gruesome statistics. They watch blood-spattered videos depicting collisions so grotesque, even the most wooden actors didn’t deserve to die in them. They realize they’re about to join a community of inattentive, menacing and downright rude bullies.

They can’t wait.

Driving has swelled from privilege to rite of passage. Legitimate or not, being behind the wheel bestows freedom, independence, image, status, conquest, manifest destiny, adulthood and youth.

Despite the hideous, slack-jawed photograph, the cool, laminated plastic driver’s license alone validates your identity. It facilitates financial transactions and access.

Summer reminds card-carrying members of this American lifestyle how significant this rite of passage is. School is out and driving season begins on roads already fraught with tourists entangled in folding maps.

Despite the attention or pressure teens get, especially in light of the new graduated licensing law effective July 1 (see sidebar), new immigrants and the elderly are also negotiating to get their right of way. While they may face the same road hazards, they have their own physical and cultural obstacles on the road to independence.

Teens

The influx of teen-age drivers is year-round, according to Concord DMV administrative manager Pam Kaiser. Whenever a school concludes a driver’s education session, hordes descend on the offices for permit application. “It seems like a whole busload gets off, ” Kaiser says.

Since December, though, teen-agers and their parents have been bombarding the DMV and driving schools with questions about the new Brady-Jared Teen Driver Safety Act of 1997. The graduated licensing law requires teens to wait longer before getting full drivers’ privileges and obtain more behind-the-wheel hours with adult instruction.

Teens have rushed to reserve classroom and behind-the-wheel slots, many now booked through May. Virgilio Young, owner of Quality Driving School in El Sobrante for 17 years, confirms “there are a lot of fears, confusion, rumors, like they think with the new law, they can’t get their license until they’re 18.”

Rainy Robinson, who owns the Driversity locations in Alameda and Contra Costa counties with her husband, David, adds: “All the parents are hysterical about this new law, and they don’t really understand what it is.” Some who weren’t familiar with the original licensing rules feel blindsided by the 50 hours of supervised driving, which in reality is only a 20-hour increase.

“A lot of them are thinking 50 hours are coming out of nowhere, ” Robinson says.

A truckload of studies and statistics explain the act’s impetus. Standard driver’s education classes haven’t seemed to help diminish teens’ risky behavior. A report posted on the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Web site (www.aaafts.org) mentions a study in Georgia that found classroom and professional instruction was no help in minimizing teen accident rates.

“The safety effects of good driving skills appear to be offset by overconfidence and increased exposure, ” the report observes. “Better-trained novice drivers become licensed sooner and drive more, in part because of their own increased confidence, but also because their parents often give them more freedom to drive.” In other words, cocky teens got more road time, which increased their risk.

Because of such studies, government support for driver’s education in many public schools has waned in the last 15 years. Also, lawsuits by professional driving instructors argued that public schools shouldn’t be charging a fee for the instruction, so schools dropped driving programs altogether.

What graduated licensing does is take teen-agers out of hazardous situations while letting them gain road experience. “In my humble opinion, the state really got it right this time, ” says Joe Scott, a former California Highway Patrol officer who now owns Academy of Driving in Concord. “They needed to slow down a little bit and get the driver wisdom.”

One 1991 study listed the leading teen infractions as speeding, violating right of way and following too closely. Another study theorized that the “highest-risk young drivers may also have low self-esteem, low social responsibility and irrational beliefs.” While only group discussion driving sessions could address that contention, graduated licensing may prevent high-risk drivers from endangering others and learning bad habits right off.

The sore point for teens, though, isn’t necessarily the restrictive rules, but their uneven application. Robinson understands and agrees with the view. “It seems discriminatory to me. It should be aimed at everybody. If you don’t know, you don’t know. At 18, you don’t get the magic wand and you know how to drive.

“I appreciate the law. It should be across the board for everyone.”

The elderly

Reaction times slow. Physical ailments crop up. Bad habits creep up over a lifetime and suddenly you can lose your license or your life.

The elderly comprise a smaller driving population as a whole. The odometers of drivers 80 or older barely register more than 4,000 miles a year. Yet calculate the number of fatal accidents per mile driven and their death rate outstrips the death rate of all groups except teen-agers. A 1997 DMV report said that seniors 80 and older have six times the accident rate of the general population. About 30,000 seniors had their licenses revoked or suspended last year because of physical and mental conditions.

Number crunchers are also alert to the fact that baby boomers are aging. In the year 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 and older.

Obviously, the issue of diminishing capacity can be a keenly sensitive topic to broach, even with oneself. Sometimes elderly drivers can even be new drivers, with their own unusual set of challenges. Laura Bradshaw, owner of Berkeley Driving School, has had many female clients “who have been driven around by their husbands, and their husbands die, and their Plymouths are just sitting in the garage.”

Often it takes a traffic infraction before someone willingly evaluates their ingrained driving behavior, and he or she doesn’t even begin to know what questions to ask. For help, individuals can request a “Self-Assessment Scale” from the California State Automobile Association, Traffic Safety Dept., 150 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94101.

License renewals by mail are no longer automatic for motorists 70 and older. Now, they must come in to read the eye charts and take written tests about every five years. If the police, family members or neighbors give a compelling reason, the DMV can have a mature driver tested behind the steering wheel. Before that happens, rather than because of it, people can talk to organizations like the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Safety Council or the CSAA. They and others offer an eight-hour Mature Driver Improvement Course, which could not only circumvent losing a license, but may also qualify participants for reduced insurance rates.

Scott, of the Academy of Driving, wishes family members would get more involved in helping their older parent, sibling or kin make the decision about whether to drive. “Sometimes if it’s just left to the parent, it’s not the most objective decision to make, ” he warns.

Simple equipment can help. Auto supply stores sell wide rear-view mirrors and fish-eyed mirrors to eliminate the blind spot. One of Young’s clients suffered a stroke on his left side, but a special turn signal allowed right-hand use. Young has consulted with Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living for recommendations.

Older drivers might even consider enrolling in yoga or t’ai chi ch’uan to improve driving flexibility. If necessary, restricted licenses could be an option, such as daytime or doctor-appointment drives only.

The DMV publishes handbooks specifically about how to speak with the mature driver. Any suggestion could be perceived as threatening their intellectual and physical capacity, much less the notion of independence. “That’s a whole issue of your freedom, being able to drive yourself to the doctor, ” Bradshaw says. “That’s a big deal.”

Immigrants

Coming to a new country is an incredibly brave venture. One leaves behind familiar sounds, smells, customs and roads for unfamiliar and often baffling territory.

The driver’s license represents one step into acculturation. “A lot of recent immigrants to the country, they’re trying to plug into the American dream. Get off that bus, get off that train and come and go as they please, ” Scott explains.

Formidable barriers besides language can exist. Immigrants might come from developing countries where driving isn’t commonplace. Family and friends don’t have cars for practice. They can’t afford sustained driving instruction.

“Who’s going to teach you?” Bradshaw asks. “Most people won’t teach adults how to drive in their own car. We’ve had people who run out of money and have to save more to take lessons. It’s sad, but our insurance is phenomenally high, we can’t charge $10 an hour.” She calculates foreign students on average need 15 hours to get acquainted with the roadway. At $30 an hour, that’s $450.

Physical dexterity and shame can also have their cultural components and can hinder performance. More than two years ago a “very traditional Palestinian Muslim woman” came to the Berkeley Driving School for lessons. Although she doesn’t teach anymore, Bradshaw ended up taking this woman on after the other instructors gave up. Every Monday, Bradshaw still teaches this mother of eight who has never ridden a bicycle or engaged in activities that would develop hand-eye coordination. “We’re friends now, ” she laughs.

Bradshaw, who hasn’t charged for instruction, eventually approached the husband because her client was so ashamed of her progress. He finally confessed it took him two years to learn before he passed his driver’s test. “I hope she takes it to heart, ” Bradshaw says.

Sometimes those who have learned in their native countries have to adjust their driving philosophies. Young’s school offers lessons in Tagalog for Filipino clients. “The law in the Philippines, pedestrians must move away from the car, ” Young says. “During the (driving) test, when a pedestrian doesn’t get out of the way, they honk their horn.” This leads to a failing score.

Besides right of way, Scott says lane use can be another foreign concept. He has had students exclaim, “Geez, I can’t believe the emphasis on lanes. However many will fit will fit.’…”

For them, it’s not a big deal to drift across without methodically checking over your shoulder, looking for the blind spot.

“I hear a lot of students from certain countries, (driving is) almost a survival of the fittest, ” Scott recounts. Reaching an intersection for instance, “Whoever is boldest will blast out there.” He also says speed limits present their problems. “35 is 35, not 45.

“Having said that, ” Scott adds wryly, “there is no shortage of American-born kids who need to adhere to that.”

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features

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