Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 30, 1993
Two brake pedals - and nerves of steel
He's a street-smart teacher for New York's new drivers.

NEW YORK - Manhattan traffic would give Mario Andretti the jitters - hordes of lawless pedestrians, frenzied cabbies, kamikaze bike riders and windshield-washer wannabes descending on your car with squeegees.

So imagine what it's like to learn to drive in Midtown. Then imagine what it's like to sit next to a rookie driver day after day.

"We only killed eight people last year, which is not a lot when you consider we had more than a thousand students," said Michael A. Douglas, the owner of a Manhattan driving school called Safe Behavior and Performance Inc.

"That's a joke, by the way."

In 25 years of instructing new drivers, Douglas has built up a dark sense of humor and nerves of steel.

His students have never had an accident. Of course, they have crunched their vehicles against immobile objects now and then, but in New York, a little sheet metal damage does not count as an accident.

"I defy you to drive 10 hours a day, all week (in the city), and not get into a scrape now and then," he said.

Learning to drive in New York involves more than memorizing the shape of road signs.

"This is big time driving," said Douglas, a Brooklyn native. "It's the World Series out here."

His students are well aware of this.

They are petrified.

Most of them are adults who don't have a license because they had no previous need to drive and they believe that only sadists, masochists and people with company cars get behind the wheel in Manhattan.

Douglas assures them that driving in New York is not as difficult as it seems: "People are afraid when they see all the traffic, but it's very slow traffic. So if you follow certain basic rules, you can deal with it."

"I'm scared," said Barbara McGregor, who was preparing to sit behind the wheel for the first time since she emigrated eight years ago from Jamaica, where the steering wheels are on the right side. "Definitely, I'm scared."

"Don't worry," said Douglas, scooting her out the door to meet her instructor. "It's the teacher's first lesson, too."

The Safe Behavior school, located in a smudged office above a Maoist bookstore near Union Square, is the only private driving school in New York that offers training on simulators before the students hit the road.

But the key to the training appears to be its emphasis on teaching the rules of the road - not the rules in the state manual, but the rules of urban survival:

Defend your space.

Recognize when you are outmaneuvered.

Keep control of your emotions.

And always remember that in New York, the other driver may be packing a piece.

"You don't want to get some of these people angry," said Douglas, moving his arms in front of his waist as though raking his students with an invisible machine gun. His lesson is that students should respond to anger with a bemused shrug.

"People don't argue with a smile," he said.

On a recent rainy weekday afternoon, Douglas imparted his wisdom to Nene Kojo, 24, a Queens resident who was taking his first hour of instruction in one of the school's sputtering Chryslers. The cars are equipped with an additional brake pedal on the passenger side.

"You've got to be crazy not to have dual brakes," said Douglas. "This is a job, not a cause."

Kojo, it turned out, had driven before - he just never bothered to get a license. But as he pulled away and rounded the corner on Union Square, it was clear that he was still very much a novice.

"Easy, easy, easy, let up the gas," Douglas said, grabbing the wheel from Kojo. "Don't fight my hand."

Student and teacher proceeded across 15th Street and down through Greenwich Village and the relatively empty industrial neighborhoods of the West Side.

The streets are more active than anything on the simulator. A limousine pulled out of a garage and invited itself into Kojo's lane. A passenger disembarked from a cab directly into his path. Bicyclists pedaled toward the car while looking backward. Pedestrians stepped into the street without looking.

While Kojo lurched between obstacles, staring intently ahead, hands gripped tight at ten-and-two, a cab whizzed by, the driver pummeling the wheel with drum sticks as though it were a tom-tom.

"Don't slow down when you change lanes, speed up!" said Douglas.

The student driver clearly stood out among the other impatient drivers. Kojo appeared to be the only driver who actually halted at stop signs. Other vehicles behind him noted this strange behavior with angry blasts on their horns.

Intersections posed a special challenge. Kojo's instinct was to speed up and get the ordeal over with. Douglas counseled him to slow down to make sure cross-traffic did not dart in front. But don't slow down too much in the crosswalk, the teacher advised, "otherwise pedestrians will crawl over your car like cockroaches," he said, pronouncing the word, "cock-a-roaches."

At one such intersection, Kojo yielded to several pedestrians, but apparently not enough for one man, who cursed him loudly. "I don't know what he's complaining about," said Douglas. "We didn't hit him."

Kojo's lesson for the day was primarily limited to rudimentary turns and stops. Douglas steered him clear of Manhattan's notorious north-south avenues, those five-lane highways of high-anxiety.

Nor will he get a chance to test himself on Manhattan's most challenging roadways.

"If you don't have a license, don't talk to me about going on a bridge, don't talk to me about going in a tunnel and don't talk to me about going 50 miles per hour," Douglas said.

But Kojo probably came away with at least one valuable lesson, learned after he found himself repeatedly boxed in behind double-parked cars, out of position while more aggressive drivers streamed by.

"When you drive in the city like this, you always try to anticipate which way won't be blocked," Douglas advised. "You've got to establish a little turf. If New York is about anything, it's about establishing turf." home page   
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