Classes help younger set prepare for driving

Navigating shallow used market a constant challenge
July 11, 2012
Towing business gets vehicles where they need to go
July 11, 2012
Navigating shallow used market a constant challenge
July 11, 2012
Towing business gets vehicles where they need to go
July 11, 2012

Many Tri-parish teenagers are taking advantage of the summer break to participate in one of the earliest rites of passage into young adulthood – driver’s education.

“I had driven twice before taking driver’s education in the Rouses’ parking lot,” said Jonah Dupre, a sophomore at Vandebilt Catholic High School who is currently taking the class with Vandebilt coach Scott Ayo. “It worked out pretty well.”

To obtain a learner’s permit, students must complete 30 classroom hours, eight hours behind the wheel and take a written and vision exam. A permit allows the driver-in-training to drive with another licensed driver age 21 or older or licensed sibling 18 or older.

“The first day of driving, students are pretty nervous,” Ayo said as he sat in the passenger seat while Vandebilt 10th-grader Ryan Abboud calmly steered the Honda Civic, with its large yellow roof sign reading “Driver’s Education,” down Barrow Street in Houma.

Dupre sat casually in the back seat and listened Ayo instructed Abboud.

“Some students who have older siblings who have already taken the class are not as nervous,” Ayo said. “Some of the moms freak out, and they take pictures of us as we are driving off.”

Abboud is the third of four children to take the course, but even though his parents Bobby and Kathy Abboud have already seen two of their children obtain their driver’s licenses, the prior experiences have not calmed their nerves.

“My parents aren’t as mellow about it as you would think, even though my older brother and sister have taken the course and have their licenses,” Abboud said, laughing. “My parents told me to relax and breathe. My older sister and brother left me hanging out to dry with no advice.”

Earlier in the week, Ayo, who has been teaching driver’s education for two years, and his pupils practiced parallel parking behind the school, and on their latest drive, Dupre and Abboud were spending their fifth day behind the wheel driving in Houma and Thibodaux.

“On the first day of driving, I take them out down (La.) Highway 311,” Ayo said. “It’s got a nice wide shoulder, and it’s a drive in the country. On the second and third day, we begin driving in town. About 60 to 70 percent of the students I teach have already driven in their neighborhoods or parking lots before they take the class.”

“I drove once with my dad in the civic center parking lot,” Abboud said. “My dad gets a little loud when giving instructions, but it was good.”

“I drove with my dad, too, in a Jeep,” Dupre, who is the oldest child in his family and the first to take driver’s education, chimed. “My parents are nervous about me taking the course, though. The told me, ‘Don’t kill anyone,’ and to be calm. I’m a little nervous, but very excited.”

“Most students say their dads are better at taking it (their children taking driver’s education) in stride, and that their moms are really paranoid,” Ayo said, laughing. Both students said they would be practicing mostly with their fathers.

“I have to unlearn a few students from things they picked up from their parents, but a lot of them tell me they go home and scold their parents for the way they drive because the parents are not following the rules,” Ayo said, laughing. “I know I drive 10 times better than I did before I was a driving instructor. After driving 30 or 40 years, you forget some of the specific rules.”

Ayo estimates that 150 students take the course annually through the school, which offers the class in the fall and spring.

“I’m already an educator, so it helps when it comes to teaching the course,” Ayo said. “It’s cool, getting to know the students and sharing your personal driving experiences with them, but you want them to be safe and not to get hurt because you taught them.”

In the classroom, Ayo uses a Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles driver’s education textbook, worksheets, reviews and computer presentations to teach the students.

“Most of them remark that the class is a whole lot easier than they thought it would be,” Ayo said.

“It all came together naturally, the classroom work and the driving,” Dupre said. “The most exciting part is getting to drive. I like driving in the country.”

Like Dupre, Abboud also prefers driving on the open road versus rolling along the streets of Houma.

“I’m nervous about someone pulling out in front of me,” Abboud said. “When you are driving in town, there is much to see, watch out for and anticipate. Town is busy.”

“You learn the quirks of routes you take – potholes, watching for dogs – all these things will happen to them in the first six months of driving,” Ayo said. “They learn the basic skills and knowledge such as driving at night, driving in the rain.”

When it comes to places where newly minted drivers are getting into fender benders, multiple-lane roads with high speed limits are the most troublesome.

“Areas like Martin Luther King Drive in Houma, where a lot of stores are, are the roads where I saw the most teen driver accidents when I worked patrol,” said Louisiana State Police Troop C spokesman Evan Harrell said. “These young drivers are inexperienced and can’t multi-task.”

Harrell said teen drivers also run off two-lane roads or stop and pull away from a stop sign without giving themselves enough distance between oncoming vehicles.“They don’t judge how fast the other car is coming toward them,” he said.

Harrell knows the driver’s education course circuit well and speaks at many of the classes throughout the area.

“I go over not drinking and driving and wearing seatbelts,” Harrell said. “We show them videos and let them know that driver’s education is not some kind of scare tactic.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, but in the last three years, teenage driver fatalities have dropped in LSP Troop C’s patrol area.

“We’ve only had one so far this year, and it was at La. Highway 1 bridge and La. Highway 3090 intersection,” Harrell said. The April 1 accident involved a 19-year-old driver, and he and his 17-year-old passenger both died in the two-vehicle crash.

In 2010, there were 14 teenage driver fatalities in the Tri-parishes, and, in 2011, the number decreased to four.

Other driver’s education


Learner’s permit seekers have several choices when it comes to taking the driver’s education course, from taking it through their high school to local driving schools.

Driver’s education classes for Terrebonne Parish students are $200, and classes in St. Mary Parish are $250. Lafourche Parish schools no longer offer the program.

Vandebilt’s class is $375 for students, and they also earn half a credit upon successful completion of the course.

Driving schools such as South Lafourche Driving School, Thibodaux Driving School, NRC School for Driving, All State Driving School and Dufrene Driving School offer classes at rates range from $380 to about $450. The classes are usually taught during the summer months. Once an individual reaches the age of 17, several of the businesses also offer a six-hour course for $50 on up to $75.

Richard Grabert Jr. and Donna Pellegrin make safe driving their business through All State Driving School. They do it for the benefit of everyone on the road.

Having started All State Driving School six years ago, the couple brings experience, state certification and a common sensibility to set students on a straight course when operating a motor vehicle.

“I got started with my dad, Richard Sr.,” Grabert said. “He had South Lafourche Driving School. Then I started All State in 2006 and bought him out in 2008.”

While working on establishing a permanent office, All State contracts to hold classes at multiple locations including the Plantation Inn in Houma.

By being willing to take driving students based on flexible schedules, theirs is a full-time occupation that often requires attention anytime day or night.

All State offers a 38-hour course, 30 hours of class time and eight hours on the road. Upon completion, students should be able to pass State Department of Motor Vehicle exams to secure their standard operator license.

Classes cost $430, but Grabert and Pellegrin contend they offer more in personalized attention than what public school driver education classes can manage.

Grabert and Pellegrin primarily have young students working to secure their first driver’s license, but also cover drivers who have to take classes due to traffic violations and even older drivers looking to get a license. They are advocates of having licensed drivers take refresher courses every eight years.

All State Driving School averages having 15 students a month, but is authorized by the state to teach up to 30 students.

Students remain in classroom settings until the instructors are confident they are ready for the road. Pellegrin said they are not going to take a student into traffic unless they feel safe.

“We will teach them what to do if something goes wrong. They don’t get that through the public school classes,” Pellegrin said.

Grabert said that drivers are basically the same today as they have been in the past, with the exception that there are more distractions now with cell phones, texting and in car entertainment systems.

“Texting is the biggest thing causing accidents for teenage drivers,” Harrell said. “Teen drivers are not supposed to have a cell phone in their hands at all for the first year after they get their licenses.”

Pellegrin said breaking students from thinking they already know what is needed to drive safely is often the first lesson that needs to be taught.

Another challenge they often face are parents that have taught their children bad driving habits. “They will want to make a right turn on a red light without stopping,” Grabert said. “They will say ‘That is the way my dad does it.’ Well, your dad is doing it wrong.”

On the first day of class, Grabert and Pellegrin test students on what they think they know about driving. The first lesson being that they do not know as much they think they do. Once that lesson is comprehended, teaching proper driving skills becomes easier.

There are 3.1 million licensed drivers in Louisiana. According to State Farm Insurance, it is also a state that has one of the highest costs for vehicle insurance in part because of bad and uninsured drivers.

Within a short period of time, All State Driving School has expanded regular classes to Patterson in St. Mary Parish, as well as locations in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Once a year they offer classes in Grand Isle.

Vandebilt Catholic High School sophomore Ryan Abboud completes his hours to earn his learner’s permit. Abboud is among the estimated 150 students who take driver’s education each year through the school, which offers the course for $375.