NJ driving instructors share their ‘horror stories’ from the road
The bravest jobs in New Jersey: the military, police, firefighters and ... driving instructors?
They throw themselves in a car with someone who's likely never touched the wheel before, several times a week if business is good. And in a congested state like New Jersey, that may be a more dangerous task than it would be elsewhere.
New Jersey 101.5 reached out to a few driving schools within the Garden State to see who'd be willing to share some "horror stories" from the road. As expected, their anecdotes were more humorous than anything else. We learned major accidents, fortunately, aren't a common occurrence among first-time drivers (it helps that the instructor has a second set of brakes).
Dual brakes, though, weren't enough to stop a Howell Driving School student from slamming into a telephone pole following a left turn in Manalapan.
"The student hit the gas instead of the brake as he was turning," said Peter Ciappa, president of the school. "When we hit the pole we were only doing under 10 miles per hour, so no injuries."
Ciappa, a former cop, said the scariest part was the deployment of the vehicle's air bags.
Ciappa said the company loses "a lot of hubcaps" — a couple per month, he guessed.
"The kid makes a turn too tight and hits a curb, or we teach them how to park, they hit the curb," he said.
Joseph Giacomo, owner of Edison Driving School, didn't know he was teaching a partially blind student until his second lesson.
"He never explained it to me and I was always wondering why he's getting so close to the cars on the right," Giacomo said.
Being blind in one eye is legal on the road, as long as the other eye has adequate vision.
Another student of Giacomo's, he said, had a legitimate fear of being behind the wheel. It took him about an hour to encourage her to turn the key and start the car. On the highway, she refused to go faster than 20 miles per hour.
"I had to think quick on my feet. I had to put a piece of paper over the speedometer so she wouldn't know what speed she was doing," he said.
Keeping your own eyes on the road is key when sitting in the passenger seat, according to James Scalera, owner of Real Deal Driving School in Sayreville. It's important not to forget you're dealing with a newbie, even if they've been coasting just fine for much of the session.
"You'll have 15 turns that are great and then all of a sudden they're aiming right for a telephone pole," Scalera said.
He's had male and female students start bawling the second they get behind the wheel. Of the thousands of students handled through the school, about 15 "still couldn't drive" after wrapping up their six hours of lessons, he said.
In Cranford, Road Rules Driving School owner Michael Pielech has been asked by state troopers and firefighters: "How do you do it?" "Aren't you scared?"
Dealing with first-time drivers isn't the dangerous part, he said. The biggest issue is other motorists on the road who turn instantly enraged when they see a "Student Driver" vehicle nearby.
"If you're going the speed limit, they swoop right around you and cut you off," he said. "Stop at a stop sign, and the person behind us will honk and high-beam us. We've all become kind of lax with the rules; they expect our kids in the car to do the same thing."
According to Pielech, all of his instructors have been rear-ended at some point. He believes cell phones are a major reason.
Giacomo, of Edison Driving School, recently lost a tooth during a lesson, and it wasn't his student's fault. They had been waiting at a red light for more than a minute when another vehicle nailed them from behind.
"My tooth hit the rear-view mirror on my side, knocks my tooth out. Now I'm bleeding from the mouth," he said.
Scalera, of Real Deal, said "every day would be a lot easier" if his students didn't have to worry about the impatience and nastiness of other drivers.
"It says 'Student Driver' on your car and they're right up your butt," he said.
His current students have it a bit easier today, he said, than in the past when state law required a "Student Driver" signal on top of every instruction vehicle. Those scarlet letters aren't always as obvious today.
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.