Vineyard Auto School now steered by Neal Maciel and Mike Dellis

Long-time Vineyard Auto School owner Joe Thibodeau, right, turns over the keys to the driver's ed training car to new owners Mike Dellis, center, and Neal Maciel, who purchased the business on July 15. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Former law enforcement officers Neal Maciel and Mike Dellis moved to the other side of the steering wheel on July 15. They are the new co-owners of the Vineyard Auto School, the only provider of Island-based driver’s education program for many years.

The two men’s previous job experiences are definitely an asset in their new business. As a former State Police Island Commander and Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) inspector, Mr. Maciel figures the number of driving tests he gave is “in the thousands.” As a former Edgartown Police officer, Mr. Dellis spent hours driving on Island roads and enforcing traffic laws.

Before they purchased the auto school, Mr. Dellis and Mr. Maciel worked as instructors for Joe and Natalie Thibodeau, co-owners of the business since 1995.

“My wife and I have run the school all these years to serve the community and to offer students a program here that the registry sponsored,” Mr. Thibodeau said in a phone conversation with The Times last week. “It’s been fun. I won’t miss all the bureaucratic stuff, but I will miss the kids.”

Before Mr. Maciel became the co-owner of the auto school, he received notification of his selection as the driver’s education instructor for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) for the upcoming school year.

As a result, Mr. Thibodeau said he and his wife decided to sell the auto school this summer instead of at the end of the year.

“We hadn’t planned to turn the auto school over now, but it made sense if Neal and Mike are interested,” Mr. Thibodeau said. “Once everything fell into place for Neal with the high school position, it made more sense to have the business part go hand-in-hand, so he would be comfortable with all of the other Registry pieces of the behind-the-wheel instruction.”

Last week, Mr. Maciel was cautious about accepting congratulations about his new job at the high school.

“It’s not a done deal yet, because I haven’t signed a contract,” he said. Mr. Maciel expects to meet soon with MVRHS principal Stephen Nixon to finalize the details of the program and the terms of an agreement.

Mr. Maciel plans to provide the classroom portion of driver’s education to students as part of the daytime curriculum. He and Mr. Dellis will continue to teach classes outside of the high school as well, for students who can’t work driver’s ed into their school schedules and for those who don’t attend MVRHS. Behind-the-wheel training and observation hours required to get a license must be completed through private lessons not provided at the high school, which Vineyard Auto School can provide.

Driver’s ed goes back to school

Under the Thibodeaus’ ownership, Vineyard Auto School offered the only driver’s education program available on Martha’s Vineyard for 12 years until 2007, when MVRHS added the classroom instruction to the school’s curriculum. The Thibodeaus continued to provide the required behind-the-wheel training and observation hours.

“The two of them put a lot of work into Vineyard Auto School and into the community, and I think they need to be recognized for that,” Mr. Maciel said.

The high school’s driver’s education program came to fruition through the determined efforts of Martha’s Vineyard Drive for Life (MVDFL). The nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving teen drivers’ safety and making driver’s education available to all students.

Mr. Maciel said the experience of dealing with tragedies that involved young and inexperienced drivers is a motivating force behind the work he and Mr. Dellis do now.

“We were both thinking along the same lines, that we wanted to do as much as we could for the new driver on the road, to make sure that no police officer would have to make that notification,” Mr. Maciel recalled. “One of the worst things you have to do as a police officer is to tell a parent that they’ve lost a child. We both have had to do it too many times.”

MVDFL raised about $60,000 to furnish a classroom and equip it with two driving simulators and computers with software for training. The high school offered driver’s education as an elective for two years before it was cut from the fiscal year 2010 (FY10) budget.

In response to discussions with MVDFL board members the MVRHS school committee agreed to reinstate the program in the FY11 budget.

On the road again

When arrangements for the high school’s driver’s education program did not work out last year, MVDFL members asked Mr. Maciel, who had retired from the State Police in May 2010, to consider applying for the instructor’s job in the fall. His immediate goal, however, was to seek election as the Dukes County Sheriff. After he lost the election last November, Mr. Maciel met with MVDFL and said he would commit to doing the job.

“I had taken some time to think about what my next move was going to be, and I thought it was one move that could really make a difference for the Island and the high school,” Mr. Maciel said.

He feels strongly that every student should have driver’s education in high school. “There is so much emphasis on MCAS and other tests kids have to take, and the bottom line is that not everyone is going to go to college,” Mr. Maciel said. “What’s the one tool you need to get out in the workforce and become employable? A driver’s license.”

In order to teach driver’s ed, Mr. Maciel had to be certified by the RMV and work under a licensed school. He said Mr. Thibodeau was very willing to help by letting him teach some classes. Mr. Dellis has been an instructor for about three years.

“He and I worked together for four or five classes, and we really worked well together,” Mr. Maciel said. “I couldn’t find a better partner than Mike. He’s so good with the kids.”

Future plans

Mr. Maciel said one of their goals to is bring advanced driver’s training to Martha’s Vineyard, including “Skidz School” instruction in accident avoidance maneuvers. They also plan to be certified to teach “Alive at 25,” an approved four-hour class from the National Safety Council for teenage drivers found responsible for traffic violations. Currently teens required to take the course must travel to the Cape.

Mr. Maciel said he and Mr. Dellis also intend to purchase an additional car to offer students one to two hours of behind-the-wheel training off-Island in busier traffic and on highways. They would also like to provide some basic education about cars, such as changing tires, checking fluids, and dealing with a breakdown.

Their next class is planned for October or November. Mr. Maciel said they might offer one sooner if there is enough interest. They need a minimum of 8 to 10 students to make it cost-effective.

For more information, call 508-696-DRIV(3748). A website will be available this fall at