Vineyard Auto School offers young drivers mandated safety course

Driving school instructors Neal Maciel (from left) and Mike Delis stop for a quick stretch with students Eli Hanschka, Russell Shapiro, Spencer Schofield, and Lee Faraca. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A new defensive driving course now available at the Vineyard Auto School offers young drivers who receive traffic tickets the opportunity to fulfill a Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) requirement in order to retain their licenses. The availability of the state-mandated course on Martha’s Vineyard is a boon for Island youth and their parents, since it is required for drivers between the ages of 16 to 24 who are cited for certain motor vehicle violations.

Vineyard Auto School co-owners Neal Maciel and Mike Delis offered the first “Alive at 25” course on April 27. The four-hour National Safety Council defensive driving program is approved by the Massachusetts RMV to meet Driver Attitudinal Retraining Course requirements. The cost is $75.

“The course is designed for people under the age of 25 because that’s actually the largest group of people involved in car crashes,” Mr. Maciel told The Times in a recent phone conversation. “And according to the National Safety Council injury facts, every year drivers under age of 25 are involved in more than five million collisions, resulting in a little more than 11,000 fatalities.”

The mandated Massachusetts Driver Attitudinal Retraining Course, also referred to as a safety course by the RMV, is tied to increased restrictions and enhanced penalties for drivers under the age of 18 under a new law the state legislature passed in January 2007. Teens between the ages of 16 and a half to 18 may obtain a provisional Junior Operator License (JOL), which carries some restrictions.

Teen drivers with a JOL are restricted from driving between 12:30 am and 5 am. They are also restricted for the first six months of licensure from carrying passengers under the age of 18, except for siblings. Under an additional restriction that took effect on September 30, 2010, they are prohibited from use of any mobile electronic device while driving.

Violations of any of those restrictions may land Island teens in the “Alive at 25” course, Mr. Maciel said. “But the number one factor in this age group, from 16 to 25, in all of their car crashes is speed,” he pointed out.

It pays to slow down

As a result, the new law’s enhanced penalties for teens under the age of 18 took that into account.

“Basically one moving violation is going to result in a 60-day loss of a license [JOL],” Mr. Maciel said. “And because speed is the number one factor in all their car crashes, one speeding ticket results in a 90-day loss of their license. They also have to take the four-hour attitudinal retraining course, and also a second course, State Courts Against Road Rage [SCARR].”

The cost adds up for young offenders, as Mr. Maciel pointed out. “We teach the kids in our regular class that one speeding ticket is easily going to cost you $1,000 or more,” he said.

A speeding ticket carries a minimum fine of $100, the two courses cost $75 each, and the RMV charges a $500 license reinstatement fee. There will also be insurance surcharges.

“And then they have to take their permit test and their road test over again,” Mr. Maciel added. “If that doesn’t bring home the point, I don’t know what will. By the time they take their course and take their permit and road tests over again, it’s probably going to be a six-month loss of license, because of the backlog.”

In addition to statistics about young drivers, Mr. Maciel said the “Alive at 25” course includes discussion about topics such as the effects of driving inexperience, the consequences of risk-taking behavior, peer pressure, speeding and impaired driving. Skill practices and on-the-spot defensive driving techniques are also included.

“They have to participate; they can’t just sit there,” he added.

Teens are notified by the RMV by mail if they are required to attend the course, according to the RMV website. Mr. Maciel said the course would be offered once a month, for now. Attendees receive a certificate upon successful completion of the course.

“We will also be online with the registry, so we can enter it into their driving record if it’s something they need for the registry to abate a suspension,” Mr. Maciel said.

Long road to new course

The addition of the course at Vineyard Auto School was the culmination of an 18-month process for Mr. Maciel and Mr. Delis. They purchased the auto school, the Island’s only provider of driver education for many years, in July 2011 from Joe and Natalie Thibodeau, co-owners of the business since 1995. Before the purchase, Mr. Maciel, a former State Police Island Commander and RMV inspector, and Mr. Delis, a former Edgartown Police officer, worked as instructors at the school. Both belong to the Professional Driver’s Association.

Vineyard Auto currently is in the second year of a three-year contract with Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) to provide the classroom portion of driver’s education.

Mr. Maciel said he and Mr. Delis took a four-day “Alive at 25” instructor class in upstate New York in July 2011 and had been working with the RMV ever since to receive approval to teach the course on the Island.

Vineyard Auto School does not currently offer the SCARR program, which is available in Hyannis. Mr. Maciel said he and Mr. Delis hope to add it in the future.

In the meantime, young Island drivers will reap the benefits of no longer having to take the “Alive at 25” course in Hyannis, as well.

“It’s going to save them some money, and it’s going to get them some education, and hopefully, it will save them from making more mistakes,” Mr. Maciel said. “This is kind of like the graduated licensing. It is a step in the right direction. The figures indicate that fatalities since they incorporated that were actually down the first three years or so, I believe, by about 2,000 fatalities.”