Road to independence paved with driver's education
On the road again - Mark Levesque is ready behind the wheel for a driving lesson with Joe Thibodeau, his teacher. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Getting a driver's license is a rite of passage onto the road to independence. For most Island teens, the trip begins with driver's education from Joe and Natalie Thibodeau, who try to prepare would-be drivers with the knowledge, good habits, and skills needed for a safer journey.
The Thibodeaus have owned and operated Vineyard Auto School, the only driver education program on the Island, for 11 years. More than likely, whenever the Thibodeaus travel the Island's roads, they share them with someone they have taught to drive. Averaging 100 students per year, Mr. Thibodeau estimates they have helped between 1,500 to 1,600 Island teens get licensed, including several who grew up to serve in every Island town's police department.
Vineyard Auto School is a private driving school certified each year by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The Thibodeaus pay hourly rent to hold classes at Edgartown School, where Mr. Thibodeau is a teacher. The driver's education program costs $425 for classroom and driving instruction, which covers rent, insurance, gas, phone, and instructors' fees.
Upon successful completion of the program, students receive a certificate from the registry, which makes them eligible to take a road test and apply for an insurance discount. "Students make back the cost of the course in lower insurance rates in the second year they are driving," said Mr. Thibodeau.
Teens in Massachusetts are eligible for a learner's permit at 16 after passing a vision exam and written test. After possessing a learner's permit for six months and completing driver's education, teens between the ages of 16-1/2 and 18 can take a road test to qualify for their Junior Operator's License (JOL). At 18, driver's education is not required but a learner's permit is.
The Thibodeaus try to make their program accessible to all Island teens who want to take it. Classes for 25 to 30 students are offered every other month year-round, alternating between afternoon and evening hours to accommodate different schedules.
Their most recent class finished the 10-week program last week. Held every Tuesday night from 5:45-8:45 pm at Edgartown School, the program provides the State-required 30 hours of classroom instruction, six hours of in-car behind the wheel training and six hours in-car as an observer of another student driver for a JOL.
Driver's education, Mr. Thibodeau tells his students, "is an introduction to the adult world of learning to deal with experienced drivers who don't always make good decisions."
Driving a desk
On a visit several weeks ago to the class, Mr. Thibodeau was readying his 27 students for their mid-term exam. Teaching a three-hour class tacked onto the end of a long day to teens already weary from school, jobs and extracurricular activities requires patience to deal with their wandering attention and distracting interruptions.
Mindful of their hectic schedules, Mr. Thibodeau conducts classes in the school cafeteria so students can sit at tables and eat, since many have no time for dinner beforehand.
He keeps the pace of his delivery brisk and alternates facts with anecdotes to hold their interest. "Folks, would you write down…" is his most-used phrase, followed by something he wants them to remember. They dutifully comply, knowing these prompts will show up on a quiz - and they are allowed to use their notes.
Class rules are strict, but there is nothing like the enticement of a driver's license to ensure compliance. Students must attend all 10 classes and make up missed ones. They have a quiz and homework each week. If homework is turned in late three times, they have to attend a makeup class. Each student's classroom time, driving instruction, observation hours, homework assignments, and tests are recorded on a card and checked by examiners at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
After listening to Mr. Thibodeau's lecture and watching a video on fire and water escapes, this reporter realized an older driver can learn some new tricks. To help remember them, there are some catchy acronyms. For example, if trapped in a car in the water or on fire, think POGO (Pop seatbelt, Open window, and Get Out).
To make his classes relevant, Mr. Thibodeau relates driving tips to Island experiences: "Suppose you are on the way to pick someone up at the boat and the drawbridge is up - what would you do? Allow enough space, make a three-point turn, and go the other way."
And during summer tourist traffic, "When you see cars with out-of-state license plates, what do you have to do? Drive defensively."
I gamely agreed to take the mid-term exam along with the class, realizing too late how embarrassed I would be if I failed. To my surprise, I experienced the same sweaty-palm, test-taking anxiety of my school years.
Fortunately, I did pass. And I won't forget the answer to a question I missed about speeding fines for a long time - $200 for going 20 mph over the speed limit definitely made an impression.
In the weeks to come, guest speakers such as Capt. Bob Ogden, a DARE officer in the Sheriff's department, would provide some attention-grabbing lessons. He brings "fatal vision" goggles for the students to try on, which impair their vision as if they were intoxicated. Albert Clements and Teddy Bernard will share their experiences racing stock cars at Seekonk Speedway to explain why high speeds are so dangerous in ordinary cars.
There is a lot for students to absorb, but as Mr. Thibodeau pointed out, "When they leave here, they're not perfect drivers, because they're kids. But they can't say they didn't know."
On the road again
Once the students pass their mid-term and bring in an article related to driving or automobile safety, they can sign up for driving hours. "We tell the kids, for every hour they drive with us, they should drive two hours with their parents," said Mr. Thibodeau.
While Martha's Vineyard offers plenty of quiet rural roads for practice, he advises his students to spend at least two of their 12 parent-supervised driving hours on highways off-Island.
Last month, Mark Levesque and Liane Fitzgerald agreed to let me ride along during their driving instruction. Mark, a 16-year-old junior at MVRHS, said that at first he was ambivalent about getting his license, since most of his friends already drive and give him rides. Now, however, he said he would like to get his license before hockey season, a convenience for getting to practices and games.
For Liane, a 17-year-old junior at the Charter high school, a license represents, "A lot more freedom - I won't have to ask, 'Mom, can I get a ride?'" For up-Island teens, Mr. Thibodeau pointed out, getting a driver's license provides relief for parents from hour-long round-trips to school and extra-curricular activities.
As they drove around Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, it was obvious both students had practiced. They handled the Toyota Corolla with a familiar ease, with Mr. Thibodeau offering helpful suggestions, "A little slower on the turn…. Put on your signal one telephone pole before the intersection…. Hand over hand when turning." The car is equipped with a specially installed passenger side foot brake.
Each student drove for an hour while the other observed, with stops made to practice backing up and parallel parking. Both asked many questions about the driving test. I resisted the impulse to tell them it will seem like the longest 15 to 20 minutes of their lives.
Mr. Thibodeau advised them to talk to other students who have taken the test to find out where they drove, what kind of car they used, and what questions the state trooper asked them. He also told them, "Clean your windshield, windows and mirrors, and the inside of your car. Officers don't like cat hair on the uniform!"
Once the driving test is over, Mr. Thibodeau said, "If the officer asks how you think you did, you should answer, 'I did what you requested of me the best I could today.'"
The most common mistake made by teens who fail their driver's test is not making a complete full stop at stop signs, Mr. Thibodeau said. To reinforce this habit, when students pull up to a stop sign, he repeats, "S-T-O-P - State Troopers On Patrol," which takes the same time to say as making a complete stop.
The graduated license law now in place in Massachusetts was passed in 1998 so that new drivers start out with restrictions that are removed as they advance from the learner's permit phase through the junior operator's license (JOL) to a full license.
During the first six months after receiving a JOL, teens may not operate a motor vehicle with anyone under the age of 18 in the vehicle unless accompanied by a person who is at least 21 years old, has at least one year of driving experience, holds a valid driver's license, and is occupying the seat next to them. They also may not operate a motor vehicle during the hours of 12 am to 5 am unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
Those advocating stricter rules say that the 1998 law has not reduced collisions involving teen drivers. In response, Representative Bradford Hill (R-Ipswich) recently sponsored a bill which would double the required number of behind-the-wheel hours during driver's education to 12 hours, increase the number of adult-supervised driving hours before a teen can obtain a license from 12 to 30, extend the restrictions on passengers to one year, ban new drivers from using cell phones, and increase the duration of license suspensions for infractions.