Signs of a good driving school -- good cars, good texts

There are more than 138 million drivers in the United States, and most of them have never had any professional driving instruction. Yet, a formal driving education has proved to be one of the best methods of produing a safe driver.

Driving schools are especially useful if you don't want to impose upon a family member or strain a friendship with a request to learn how to drive. Free instruction is not always the best, however, and may be worth exactly what you pay for it.

There are many driving schools across the country that can help the novice handle a car safely.

On the other hand, there are a few that take their clients for a ride. The instructors waste the students' time. They take the customers out in the car and then stop for lunch, or they make phone calls during the client's lesson.

In some schools the instructors are not professionals, anyway, but inexperienced part-timers who are just looking for extra bucks.

Here's what to look for when searching for professional driving instruction:

Look for a school that will permit you to progress at your own rate. Some schools require a contract for a specific number of lessons. Many people will acquire the skills that make them safe enough to drive by themselves and to pass a test after about six hours of instruction. Others need more instruction.

Thus, don't buy a block of hours. If the quality of instruction diminishes, you may be stuck. Pay as you go and you're in the driver's seat.

The first thing the potential driver needs before even taking a lesson is a learning permit. Most driving schools will help with the required motor-vehicle written test. They even provide the material for study and collect the cost for the first lesson in advance.

After passing the written test, the student is ready to tackle his first lesson.

Most people begin the task of finding an instructor by looking in the Yellow Pages of the phone book. Before you make the final decision, however, it is wise to visit the school. Check for the following:

* Inspect the age and condition of the cars used. Many of the better schools use dual-control cars, an instructor brake, and a righthand mirror.

Make sure the car is equipped with seat belts, seat cushions, pedal extensions, or any other special devices that you may need to overcome a driving problem you may have. Don't take air conditioning for granted. Make sure it's available and the vehicle is clearly marked with signs that identify it as a driving-school vehicle.

* Ask if the school gives classroom instruction. This is available mostly to the teenager in driver-education courses; however, some schools do give home tutoring and simulated road-test lessons. Check the classroom facilities. Is the classroom comfortable and well lighted?

* What are the dates of the textbooks? Is just the motor-vechile handbook used? Are there just blackboard explanations, or is there special equipment, such as a traffic-situation board, films, reaction timers, and road simulators?

Usually the first lesson will involve learning how to control the car and getting the feel of being behind the wheel. Subsequent lessons cover how to make right and left turns, backing up, and parking.

During every lesson there should be a review of highway safety regulations.

After the first lesson the instructor should review the student's progress and give an indication of how long it will take him to gain proficiency.

The student should also evaluate the instructor. It is not necessary to keep the same instructor for each lesson. The student must be comfortable and relaxed with the person who is training him.

Be sure there's an option to change instructors after the first lesson if his temperament is not satisfactory.

The amount of time involved in learning how to drive varies from one individual to another, but 10 hours is the average at driving schools in the US. The age of the student, his emotional makeup, and the amount of time a student spends practicing will influence the number of lessons necessary.

Driving schools are not cheap, but they do get results. The rates usually run from $12 to $15 an hour. Be sure to ask the length of each lesson. What seems to be a bargain may be for a 45-minute lesson instead of a full hour. All lessons usually start at the student's home.

Most schools have special discounts for senior citizens and special driver-education packages for teen-agers.

Newfound confidence has no end. Some drivers continue the education so they can experience the thrill of precise driving.

Several driving schools will sharpen driving techniques that were already learned. Among other things, they teach the correct way to take a turn, handle a skid, and avoid accidents. They point out that the training gets mildly technical and most of it is out on the track in real formula Fords.

You'll be amazed if you just get out there and compare what the driver education field is offering. Those who want real proficiency should investigate some of these institutions, designed for the amateur racer. Here are a few:

* Bob Bondurant's School of High Performance Driving, Highways 37 and 121, Sonoma, Calif. 95476. Phone: (707) 938-4741.

A well-known year-round operation 30 miles north of San Francisco, the approach is step by step and thorough. Courses range from a one-day street and highway driving course to a five-day grand prix. Use your own car (in good condition) or one of the school's cars.

* Skip Barber Racing School, 1000A Massachusetts Avenue, Boxboro, Mass. 01719 . Phone: (617) 263-3771.

Geared to amateur racers, the school offers three-day racing courses in Lime Rock and Thompson, Conn.; Indianapolis Raceway Park; and in mid-Ohio, near Mansfield.

In late fall to early spring, Skip Barbor and his crew travel to race tracks across the country and usually to West Palm Beach, fla.

* Bill Scott Racing School, 1420 Spring Hill Road, McLean, Va. 22101.Phone: ( 703) 893-0215.

A one-day course (Solo One) starts with serious instruction in car control and ends with relays in which the 50 or so students compete for trophies. It's funa and costs only about $50. March through October.

* Jim Russell International, PO Box 1911, Rosamond, Calif. 93566. Phone: ( 805) 256-2715. You also can call the track at (805) 256-9906. This school, the oldest in the US, is 75 miles north of Los Angeles at Willow Springs. The five-day beginners' course is good for cautious, slow-starting amateurs.Students start out in station wagons but move up quickly to formula Fords. Instruction is year round.

The National Safety Council in every state offers a "defensive-driving course."

The 8 1/2-hour course costs $14 and is usually given on two consecutive Saturday mornings, three weekday mornings, or three weeknights -- whichever is most convenient to the driver.

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