Steve Wallace: Inspections vital in driving-school industry

A sensational news item about a driving student being pulled over by police during a lesson in the Greater Vancouver area, and subsequently charged with impaired driving, caught the attention of not only the public but also the driving-school industry.

The student driver was seen weaving and lacking complete control of the vehicle. The police spokesperson was very critical of the whole situation. How could this happen? What are the repercussions?

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For starters, the driving-school vehicle was impounded for one month. This might be the least of the worries for the owner and instructor. Surely, there will be an ongoing investigation about this whole mess. Stay tuned.

Something has got to give. Hopefully there will be a renewed inspection and reporting emphasis for driving schools, particularly in the Lower Mainland. There is a very dedicated group of driving-school inspectors making the rounds. They are relatively diligent in their administrative inspections. They randomly inspect customer files, making sure all instructor licences are displayed and current. These inspectors made the rounds last week in Victoria, visiting several schools, including mine.

What protection does the consumer have, when choosing a driving school? Required provincial bonding is a financial safeguard, but what of the quality of instruction? Is it buyer beware? What questions should be asked by the consumer? Are there agencies that can help make the choice easier? Is the driving school a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau, a professional association and perhaps other unrelated but pivotal community organizations?

Google can help with a first-cut identification of eligible driving-school businesses, but can be somewhat subjectively odd at times. There can be ill-intended comments posted. The consumer is usually smart enough to filter the nonsense. Magnetic STUDENT DRIVER school signs are generally frowned upon by serious driving-school owners. They might suffice in a gap between bringing the vehicle into service and having it properly appointed, but constant use is a red flag. Most reputable driving schools will have a readily identifiable logo or trademark sign on the side of the school vehicle. This type of billboard advertising is very effective. Why are some driving-school vehicles unmarked?

There is a relatively good initial benchmark every driving instructor candidate must reach. They must have a very good driving record. There is a criminal record check. A physical fitness exam and threshold must be reached.

A practical and theory instructor course is mandatory. It can take a month or two to complete the course, depending on both the in-car and separate theory endorsement sought. There is rigorous practical and theory testing before a certificate and instructor licensing is granted.

The theory side of the equation seems well-served.

The practical driving lesson inspection is what might be lacking. It is within the right of every driving-school inspector, given the ridiculous situation of the allegedly impaired student, to do a ride-along during a driving lesson. This practical dimension could go a long way to eliminating those ill-suited to continue in the driving-school profession. Poor instructors should have the opportunity to improve, but those operating in an illegal fashion should be bounced from the business.

Small-town and small-market schools are not the problem: Word gets around in a small market. If a person is underperforming, they don’t last long. The problem of poor instruction is generally confined to the Vancouver region. The bigger the market, the easier it is to hide in plain sight.

I don’t envy the impending task of inspectors. They deserve the support of the minister responsible, who should seek to protect the public from the underperformers in our industry.

It very well could be a matter of life and death.

Steve Wallace is the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island. He is a former vice-president of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas, a registered B.C. teacher and a University of Manitoba graduate.

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