Buckle Up (And Bring A Mask): Driving Schools Restart In A Pandemic

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Tahlia Tah looks for oncoming traffic before she attempts to parallel park during her driving lesson with Domingo Montiero. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Tahlia Tah checks her blindspot before attempting to parallel park during a driving lesson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

You know the feeling when you are the last one of your friends to do something? Tahlia Tah knows it.

Among her group of friends, Tah says she’s the only one who doesn’t have a driver’s license yet. She lives in Randolph, but Bridgewater — a good 30 minute drive away — is where she goes to school, where she plays basketball and where most of her friends are. Tah turned 17 earlier this year.

"After that I was like, 'You know what, let’s go. Let’s find something to really just move this along,' " she says, "because me and my parents can agree that I need a license for myself with everything that I do.”

For many teenagers getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage. But as Massachusetts reopens, the road to that license has gotten a little longer and looks different than it used to.

Tah's parents signed her up for a driver’s ed course which, because of the pandemic, took place online.

"It’s a learning experience for me," says Domingo Montiero, Tah's instructor and owner of School of Wheels in Dedham.

Montiero would much rather be teaching the course in person. It’s pretty hard to engage with students through a screen, he says. And some people who may want to take his class can't, because they don’t have the technology for it. Even those who do find that it doesn't always work perfectly.

"Sometimes technical difficulty comes about," Montiero explains over a video chat, as his audio feed blinks in and out.

Jason Cai, an owner of North Quincy Auto Academy, has also been conducting online classes, but that hasn't made up for the revenue lost when the state ordered "non-essential" businesses to shutdown their physical locations.

"We lost 66% of our business once they closed down," Cai says.

There is, however, one important part of driver's ed that can't be conducted online — the driving.

Domingo Montiero points to the back of the car to instruct Tahlia Tah to look behind for oncoming traffic while she attempts to parallel park during her driving lesson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
While Tahlia Tah attempts to parallel park, her instructor reminds her to check for traffic behind them. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Since they were allowed to restart in-person driving lessons under the second phase of reopening that began last month, driving school instructors say they've been busy — working long hours to help students who are eager to complete their state-required, 12 hours of behind-the-wheel supervised training.

In order to reduce the chance of spreading the coronavirus, the state has issued safety guidelines for driving schools.

"My worst fear is one of my drivers actually picking up COVID-19," says Cai. "That's probably my main worry right now." As a precaution, Cai says he now asks students to fill out a questionnaire before their driving lesson to try to screen out those who might be sick.

In addition, he's trying to limit interactions between students and instructors.

"I've been scheduling driving hours where it's just same kid with the same driver, so this way it limits the spread," he says.

Montiero, of School of Wheels, has also been taking precautions. On a recent afternoon, before picking up Tahlia Tah for a one-on-one lesson, he wipes down the inside of the car with disinfectant. And during the lesson, he keeps the windows down to let plenty of fresh air flow through.

These conditions might add stress to what is already a stressful situation for new drivers. But Tah handles the situation pretty well.

"Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow," she says, as she grips the wheel and rolls towards a stop sign.

"Breath. Breath. Breath," Montiero reminds her.

Driving instructor Domingo Montiero explains the fundamentals of parallel parking to Tahlia Tah during her driving lesson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Montiero, going through the fundamentals of parallel parking with Tah. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Despite moments of tension, Tah says she's enjoying the lessons, even if driving with a mask on and the windows down can be uncomfortable in the summer heat.

"Today was very humid this morning," she says. But no big deal, because soon she'll be able to take a road test and finally get her license. "Fingers crossed," she'll be ready by mid-July.

There's a chance she may have to wait longer, though. Due to the shutdown, the Registry of Motor Vehicles postponed about 7,000 road tests that were scheduled for late March, April and May. According to an RMV spokesperson, the agency is still working through that backlog.

This segment aired on July 2, 2020.

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Adrian Ma Reporter
Adrian Ma was a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.



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