As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic has upended our lives with astonishing speed. Almost no industry has gone untouched, and the same is true for the driver training industry, which depends heavily on teaching and learning in the confined space of the car where social distancing is impossible.
As of May 5, the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has suspended on-road drive tests for up to three months after March 20, and theory tests are not being administered until at least May 8, according to its website (although exceptions are being made if you’re an emergency key worker). The DVSA has a detailed protocol for how driving examiners are to handle in-car drive tests for key workers. But driver training in the UK has come to a virtual standstill because it is all done in the car and behind the wheel.
In the United States, where 50 states plus the District of Columbia each have different training and licensing requirements, things look a bit different. New driver training is generally split between classroom time (on average about 25 to 30 hours) and in-car training with an instructor (6 to 10 hours). Parents or licensed adults are expected to provide 40 to 50 additional hours of supervised drive time but there is no way to document that. The result is that by and large, many driving schools have been scrambling to convert their classroom content into online presentations that can be streamed or accessed at home. Some states, such as California and many Midwest states, already do much of their classroom training online, so this has been a relatively easy transition, but others have had a much more difficult time adapting.
In Georgia (a state that is reopening early in spite of significant coronavirus outbreaks), the governor announced on April 30 that all new drivers with instructional permits could skip the road test altogether and still get their license, provided that they passed all other requirements. Technically, 40 hours of supervised training is still required, but there is no way of verifying that.
And some schools, believe it or not, are still trying to conduct in-vehicle training using plastic sheeting and other precautionary measures. Personally I’m not quite so convinced that this a good idea.
In spite of the incredible disruption, we might pause and reflect on the oft-said quote “Never waste a good crisis.” These surreal weeks give us a chance to reinvent, adapt, flex, and change like no other time we’ll probably ever experience in our lives. It may not be pretty and it may hurt like hell, but there is often opportunity lurking where you least expect it.
A while back on this blog, I put out an open call to instructors and school owners to find out how they’re handling this challenging time. Several did respond, and their candid comments are below. A huge thank-you to them all for sharing their thoughts with us! And please, if you’re in the industry, we’d love to hear from you—let us know in the comment section below.
“Oh wow, where do I begin? Operating a driving school when your business is not considered essential? Even if it were essential, now wouldn’t be the time to put students and instructors in a car where they are sitting a foot apart. In Washington State, the Department of Licensing is allowing live web-based training to occur for the teen classroom sessions. This makes it so we can do a little, but of course, the majority of our business is providing in-car lessons and license tests. [In some states in the US, commercial driving schools can administer the theory and drive tests for licensing.]
“All of our receptionists are able to work from home answering phones since we have an Internet-based phone system. This is helpful since we’re still able to provide immediate customer service. On the other hand, it’s expensive since our revenues are a fraction of what they should be. Our instructors (with the exception of a few who are doing web-based classroom training) have been instructed to go on temporary unemployment so they do not have to actively seek employment elsewhere. Hopefully, this means they’ll be available to work for us when the ban is lifted.
“The biggest financial liability we have is our classroom leases. We have 18 locations that are sitting empty. This will be the case for a minimum of 6 weeks. We also have insurance for cars and buildings that are going unused. There are also car payments. The other issue is that the longer this goes on, the bigger backlog of students we’re going to have when we resume. I believe we’ll make it out of this alright and that we’ll ultimately be fine, but it’s currently a struggle. Also, not knowing if we’ll be able to start up in a month or if it will be longer makes it difficult to prepare and plan.
Having said that, I know there are businesses that will not reopen and that owners will, in some cases, have lost their life savings and be heavily in debt. We’re all in this together.”
“I work in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK, with my learner drivers of a mix of age groups. Some have started from the beginning with me and others joined me after a break in their training.
“When the self-isolating started in March, I had a cough, so I canceled my lessons for a week while I was ill. I started back to work following the excellent guidelines from the Driving Instructors Association on how to maintain safety before and during lessons. I started a WhatsApp group for my pupils and let them know how lessons could be as safe as possible and what precautions we would take. Some clients decided to suspend their lessons, but I started back to work on March 23rd, just as the new restrictions were announced.
“From then on, I have not given any lessons. I was contacted by a key worker but they wanted training in an automatic vehicle and my car is manual. I use the WhatsApp group to send messages and videos to my pupils to keep their learning and positive focus going.
“On the other side of my work, I have been reaching out to experienced drivers worldwide to help them with their confidence issues. I know there’s a lot more to driving than just confidence, but many drivers lose it either gradually due to driving less (a vicious circle) or suddenly due to a crash or a near-miss. During my downtime, I have been reaching out to help experienced drivers through social media, providing advice, tips, and techniques for driving in any country. Although laws and rules vary from country to country, there are principles that apply everywhere, such as knowing your vehicle and your laws, staying mindful, keeping a safe distance, not worrying, and trying to work out what the driver behind you is thinking. So I plan to use the downtime to expand my work internationally.
“My mortgage company and car lease company have both allowed me a temporary delay in payments, which is really helpful. So I hope to be able to keep going. I know there are a lot of people financially worse off than me and I’m grateful for my life and health.”
“As a senior (nice title for doing the same job for 14 years plus) instructor I’ve been pretty much at a standstill with teaching behind the wheel but have been keeping busy with completing my book Are We There Yet?—which is an in-depth look at how both instructors and drivers need to do a lot more to address actual risk in how they teach and how drivers in general drive. (That’s my plug : )
“I am really missing giving drive tests and being a gatekeeper to ensuring that we have fairly “safe” drivers out there on the road. I think this is a great opportunity for all of us as instructors to take a forced break and assess just where we’re at in how and why we teach driving and how we can continue to improve on it.”
—Will Thornton, Driving instructor, SafeWay Driving, Sienna Plantation, Texas, USA
“I am known to be a pretty hard worker. That’s not new. I think I can honestly say I’ve never worked as hard mentally as I have these past few days. I’ve had to create a complete online classroom program for our driving school that was 30 hours of in-person, video-based webinars with supporting learning resources. I easily have 6 hours into each 2-hour video, and I can’t even count the hours put into the supporting stuff. Mara has been just as busy as me. For us, stay-at-home has meant work like our business depends on it, because it does. We can sleep when we’re dead.”
—Lynn Rogers, Owner, Parkside Driving School, Kennewick, Washington, USA
“When our governor issued the stay-at-home order, I immediately shut down our facility. Before the order, we had put in place stricter protocols than our typical sterilization of equipment and vehicles after every student, but we were becoming more and more uncomfortable with having students and parents in our facility and instructors in vehicles with students.
“Since the shutdown, we placed all of our employees on furlough and I have been answering the phone, providing people with information and customer service. We also continue to post on social media. One post, in particular, was how this is a GREAT time to isolate with your teenager and do a LOT of practice driving. The roadways are not as busy and it is safer for teens and parents to get out and practice driving. We did warn them, however, to make sure their students understand that this type of low and relatively easy traffic is not the norm. Once things begin to return to whatever our new normal will look like, students will require instruction and practice in congested, busy, crazy traffic that typically exists when there is not a pandemic going on.
“We also put all of our classroom offerings on-line; however, most of our work is done in simulation labs or in-vehicle. At the end of the day, this is one business that cannot conduct business from home. In order for students to get the necessary instruction, we need them in a simulation lab with instructors or in a vehicle. There is only so much you can teach someone about driving in a “typical classroom” setting. They need to be behind the wheel experiencing what they are learning. It is why we use simulation labs as a significant component of our driver training process.”