July 11, 2013They are superheroes who walk among us, those brave, intrepid souls whose calm, serene exterior belies the nerves of steel just below the surface. Daily, they go where no person in their right mind wants to voluntarily go.
And that's into a car with a child as young as 14 who is sitting behind the wheel, foot on the gas, for often the very first time in their young life.
These are the people who teach our young people to drive.
Don Schmaltz and Mark Avolio of the Grosse Pointe Driving School have been teaching young people to drive for nearly 20 years, and they cite pasts that include military and teaching careers as what prepared them to teach our children to drive.
"I'm not worried about the young person I'm riding with," Avolio said. "I'm far more worried about other drivers. Just today I had a woman blow through a stop sign and just kind of look at us."
Michigan law governing teenage driving has changed considerably over the years. Adults who years ago learned to drive on a driving range at the local public school in a car donated by one of the Big 3, probably wouldn't recognize today's program.
Teenagers can take drivers education when they are 14 years and eight months old. While that may seem awfully young, Avolio advocates taking the class as close to that magic date as possible.
"What that does is give the child even more driving time with a parent. They will have over a year, through different seasons, to practice with the parent."
Of course what Avolio and Schmaltz won't always reveal is they have a slight advantage when they drive with a teen as opposed to the nervous parent.
The instructors have a brake on their side of the car, and as Schmaltz admitted, they are not afraid to use it.
"Oh, I've used the brake, and I've grabbed the steering wheel more than a few times," he said. "I tell the kids it's nothing personal, just sometimes necessary."
Michigan's driver education requirement is split into two segments, with Segment I consisting of 24 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of driving. For many young people, that driving time is the first time they have ever been behind the wheel of a car. And after a brief introduction to the anatomy of the car, the student and teacher are on the road.
The cars are a familiar site around Grosse Pointe, with the yellow sign affixed to the top, alerting other drivers that a student is behind the wheel.
"The kids usually do fairly well," Avolio said. "In addition to training competent drivers, we want to make sure our students are safe and courteous drivers as well."
And brave ones as well, as part of the six hours of driving includes freeway driving. Students are taught how to enter and exit the freeway, merge, change lanes, and most importantly, go 55 miles per hour.
"The kids are usually scared to death when I tell them they are going on the freeway, but once they do it, they're fine," Avolio said. "They usually tell me that it wasn't nearly as bad as they expected."
Once the students complete the classroom and driving course, they qualify for a Level 1 Learner's License. This allows the teen to drive with a licensed parent or guardian or a designated licensed adult over the age of 21. The teen must complete 30 hours of supervised driving, including two hours of nighttime driving, before being allowed to take the Segment II portion. The teen must also hold the Level 1 Learner's License for at least three months before taking Segment II. Segment II consists of six hours of classroom instruction, covering defensive driving techniques and winter driving. It also focuses on issues close to today's teens, drinking, texting and cell phone use.
"We cover Kelsey's Law, which bans drivers under 17 from using a cell phone while driving,"
Avolio explained, "but I have to say I wish they would ban cell phones all together."
Both Avolio and Schmaltz are strong supporters of the Michigan licensing system.
"We have had students who have moved here from other states where they took drivers training, but they are required to follow the Michigan system," Avolio said. "Michigan doesn't recognize other states' programs."
The Grosse Pointe Driving School meets several times a year at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, and information is available through the War Memorial's website, warmemorial.org, or by calling the school, (586) 601-9698.
"We can't say enough about the War Memorial letting us hold our classes here," Avolio said.
"This is such a beautiful facility and they do a great job with our registration and scheduling."
Several students on hand for the first day of class recently admitted they were a little nervous about driving, but they were looking forward to the big payoff at the end.
"I'm looking forward to being 16 and being able to drive without my parents," said Parker Ignagni, 14. His sentiments were echoed by Zoe Pidgeon, 14 and Grant Clement, 14.
Sydney Simoncini, 15, said having a license will mean she won't have to rely on her parents to get her where she wants to be, even as she admitted she will still have to rely on her mother's car to get her there.
"I'm pretty sure I won't be getting my own car," she said with a laugh.