by Martha Michael
One teenaged student driver in Santa Clarita was behind the wheel when the instructor directed him to pull into a fast food drive-thru line. Another local driving instructor had his student pull into a convenience store so he could run in and get some food. On his way out of the car, the instructor joked to the 16-year-old about buying him beer. These are crazy recollections from driving students, but what could the instructors reveal, if truth be told?
One Instructor’s Conclusions
#1 – A large number of internationals take driving lessons.
Ernesto Casillas of Genesis Driving School has been an instructor for 22 years. He has taught students from India, Egypt, Thailand, The Philippines, Japan, China, Russia, Ukraine, Bangladesh and Turkey – and those are just the ones he can remember off the top of his head.
“I’ve taken people from different types of backgrounds. I’ve learned different types of languages,” said Casillas, who memorizes words in his students’ native tongues so they can communicate during lessons.
He recently trained a Korean woman who didn’t speak English. “I would tell her, ‘Slow down, slow down, slow down,’ and she would answer me in Korean. She didn’t know what I was saying,” said Casillas. “I had to write down how to say ‘right turn’ and ‘left.’”
One of Casillas’ first questions for internationals is to ask how long they have been driving. “Some people say they’re professional drivers in their country,” he said. “Then they look at the lines we have in the middle of the road and don’t know what to do.”
A typical problem for foreign-born clients is making left turns, said Casillas. “When we don’t have an arrow, they don’t move into the intersection. They start paying attention to the cars on the side instead of the cars in the oncoming traffic.”
With all of his experience teaching clients from around the world, Casillas is able to make some comparisons with driving in the United States. “I went to Egypt … they actually get in the way of cars on purpose. In countries like England, New Zealand – they have to drive for many months before they can get a driver’s license. There they spend thousands of dollars to get a driver’s license,” he said. “Some say to me, ‘If you can drive in my country, you can drive anywhere.’”
#2 – People who are battling age & issues with illness drive too.
An older woman signed up for training with Casillas. He said that she had gone to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take the written driving test for renewal, but because she was using a walker, the DMV required her to also do the behind-the-wheel driving test again.
“She knew she was going to have to stand a lot in line, so she took a walker,” said Casillas. “She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, even when I would correct her.”
Casillas got a reaction at the DMV when he brought a favorite student in to take her driving test. She had cerebral palsy.
“She was one of the best drivers I’ve ever had,” he said. “She was between 61 and 65 years old. She passed her driving test.”
She was previously a licensed driver, said Casillas, but her vehicle was hit from behind by a car and when police came and saw that she was drooling and couldn’t speak, they took away her license.
“Mute, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, with any of those types of cases, I have to adjust,” he said.
Casillas used a white board to communicate with his client who had cerebral palsy. He doesn’t take his job lightly and he sees their journeys through to the end.
“I take it personally, you’re investing money in me,” said Casillas. “I don’t bring anyone who isn’t ready. They’re putting their lives in my hands.”
#3- People in California are some of the safest drivers.
“In California we are very lenient,” said Casillas. “I find the people in Santa Clarita very willing to learn … I’d say around 97 percent of teens do practice with their parents and they do listen to the lesson plan I have for them.”
“Lillian” was one of Casillas’ students, a 61-year-old journalist with the New York Post. Lillian was a former resident of Staten Island.
“She told me, ‘In New York we could’ve done this already. You have a lot of respect for pedestrians,’” he reported that she said.
Because of the new law allowing all Californians to obtain a driver’s license, Kristine Bistline of High Desert Driving School has been getting an increasing number of calls inquiring about lessons. Other clients come from such scenarios as older adults that the DMV randomly tests, and those who call to do brush-up lessons.
“A lot of them wait until they fail,” said Bistline. “Then they get sent to Driver’s Safety.”
High Desert has a two-hour “evaluation class” at a rate of $60 per hour, where older drivers can preempt possible failure of the driving exam, and eliminate the hassles if a person has his/her license revoked. “They have to have their eyes checked, make sure they don’t have any dementia. They have to go to San Bernardino or Van Nuys to see a caseworker in driver’s safety,” said Bistline. “I’ve written letters for attorneys, because they want to take their licenses away.”
Bistline is a past president of the Driving School Association of California, the second female president since 1953. She also won the “Woman of the Year” award from the Driving School Association of America, which includes Great Britain, Japan and Guam.
With a background that extensive, Bistline is a good source for little known driving facts.
“Did you know you can drive barefooted?” asked Bistline, who has owned the driving school for 25 years.
High Desert offers a four-hour road trip course, where new or soon-to-be drivers can get extensive freeway experience. “A lot of kids don’t know you can stop on an onramp,” she said.
If massive trucks are blocking your entrance onto a freeway, for instance, you can legally stop your car completely.
“And the carpool lane – during certain hours of the day you can’t treat it as a regular lane,” explained Bistline. “And you can’t enter or exit unless the lines are broken. You’ll get two tickets for two violations – a double ticket.”
One of the most widely talked about rules and regulations, particularly among parents of teens, involves the “new driver” restrictions.
“On a permit, you must always have an adult 25 years old or older,” she said. “For one year you can’t transport other children under age 20. You can transport only your own siblings for school or specific immediate need, employment purposes or a medical purpose.”
When asked about notes from a fellow parent allowing a child to ride with a new driver, Bistline said, “There’s no such thing – a note can ONLY be used for a specific family member. And between 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. they can’t be on the road at all.”
Bistline used to be active in legislation. When the older Sen. Pete Knight was in office, she was responsible for getting the second brake put into driving instruction cars. “I would hear about these other driving schools and they’d be involved in serious crashes,” she said.
Safety just makes sense to Bistline. “I’m motivated. I share the road with these kids,” she said. “Parents would ask me if their child needs more lessons. I would say, ‘I’d put my baby in the back seat with them,’ or I’d say, ‘I wouldn’t let my daughter ride along with them – you need to consider an extra lesson or two.’”
Another key area to explore with driving instructors: the law beginning January 1 allowing all Californians to obtain driver’s licenses. That’s a topic for next time!