A.J. Seitz prides himself on offering teens vivid accounts of what can go wrong if they don’t pay attention when they get behind the wheel.
That’s because most of Seitz’s instructors at 911 Driving School – himself included – are retired police officers.
Not only have they investigated vehicular accidents. They’ve been involved in a few.
Like the time an officer responded to an early morning burglary and, thinking a familiar loading dock would be vacant, slowly backed his patrol car into a 66-foot-long trailer.
“Suddenly, the rear window busted out and the car’s roof started getting ripped off!” Seitz said.
He was there.
Behind the wheel.
“I tell students that story so they don’t repeat the mistakes of others, including myself,” Seitz said.
This is busy season for Spokane’s half-dozen driver’s ed schools.
Between late April and mid-August, 911 Driving School at 6314 N. Ash St. trains almost 200 students at any given time.
During a recent break, Seitz discussed backup cameras, distractions and how old is too old to drive.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Seitz: I was born and raised in San Diego and moved to Western Washington at 16 when my dad got a job with Boeing.
S-R: What was your favorite class in high school?
Seitz: History, because it taught me cause and effect of incidents throughout history. But a close second was advanced cooking. I was the only guy in the class, which was awesome. All the girls were cheerleaders or athletes on diets, and I got to eat everything we cooked.
S-R: Did you take driver’s ed in high school?
Seitz: No, they didn’t offer it. We lived out in the sticks, so a guy came out to our house and took me on four or five drives, mostly on country roads. Of course, the test was in downtown San Diego.
S-R: Did you pass?
Seitz: On my third shot.
S-R: Did you have career aspirations?
Seitz: I thought I’d go into some kind of recreation job, because I’d been a lifeguard and taught swimming. But the path to becoming a police officer was a little easier, and I got hired by Puyallup.
S-R: Was there a moment or event that changed the direction of your life?
Seitz: By the time I was 43, I’d been a police officer 19 1/2 years and had four knee surgeries. When I hurt my knee again, the doctor said, “There’s no way you can keep this up.” I was too young to retire, so I had to find something else to do. It was my wife, Wendy, who suggested we open a driving school.
S-R: Were you on board?
Seitz: My initial reaction was, “Are you out of your mind? I’d just spent almost 20 years with people trying to beat me up. I’m not getting into a car with 15-year-old drivers the rest of my career.” But two Pierce County deputies happened to open the first 911 Driving School in Puyallup. We talked to them and opened a franchise in Spokane.
S-R: Why go the franchise route instead of starting from scratch?
Seitz: Because everything was already done – the business plan, the curriculum.
S-R: How much did it cost?
Seitz: Close to $300,000. But they didn’t explain we’d also need cash to cover the first couple of years.
S-R: Did you ever worry the business might fail?
Seitz: In 2008 when the recession hit. We cut payroll and picked up the slack. At one point I was putting in 60 to 70 hours a week, which worked out to about $3.65 an hour. Two other 911 franchises folded.
S-R: What turned things around?
Seitz: In 2009, the 911 Driving School originators sold out to new owners, and suddenly we had tons of corporate support. We also got help from my stepfather-in-law, a franchise attorney in Oregon, and the Small Business Development Center. The combination turned things around, and we’re doing really well now.
S-R: How many driving instructors do you have?
Seitz: Eighteen, all part time. Fifteen are retired police officers, and three are current firefighters. They’re certified by the state and take refresher courses each year.
S-R: Why is driver’s ed no longer taught in public schools?
Seitz: Back somewhere around the ’60s, the Legislature passed a bill saying a portion of every ticket written in Washington state would go toward funding driver’s ed in high school. Parents would pay a small fee, and the schools would chip in some money. Gradually, politicians siphoned off the state’s share of the funding, and (Gov.) Gary Locke canceled the program in 2002.
S-R: Do today’s students tend to be either too timid or overconfident?
Seitz: It depends on their background. We get kids who have never sat behind the wheel before – who don’t even know where the turn signal is – all the way to farm kids who have already driven semi-trucks on their property.
S-R: How about teenagers who play a lot of race-simulating video games? Does that develop driving skills?
Seitz: No, other than make them more confident. The steering and maneuvering concept comes easier to kids who ride ATVs, dirt bikes and Jet Skis.
S-R: What mistakes do new drivers typically make?
Seitz: Not looking far enough up the road is probably the biggest one. Making sure they’re always checking their blind spots is another. Farm kids typically can’t look back over their shoulder because they’re driving such big rigs.
S-R: What’s the rule of thumb regarding the safe distance between two vehicles traveling the same direction?
Seitz: Four seconds on the highway. In town, two to three seconds is acceptable.
S-R: Does that translate to car lengths?
Seitz: No, because car lengths vary more than they did 30 years ago.
S-R: What other lessons do you want students to learn?
Seitz: Number one, we preach against all distractions. The worst ones are texting and grooming – putting on makeup or shaving while driving. We also emphasize that driving is a social event. You’re interacting with other people, whether you know them or not. So respect other drivers and cut them some slack.
S-R: Anything else?
Seitz: Never focus only on what’s legal. Think about what’s possible. Could another driver come toward you the wrong way on a one-way street? Could they run a red light? The hardest part of every driving experience is other people, because that’s something you can’t control.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Seitz: The kids. The same goes for our instructors. This job allows them to teach kids skills and contribute to the community instead of being on the other side – writing tickets.
S-R: Besides teenagers, who takes your classes?
Seitz: We offer adult private drives – anything from a single drive for someone prepping for their drive test to a six-drive package for adults who have never driven before. We do assessments for St. Luke’s if patients have had strokes, for instance. And we teach the AAA driver improvement course for senior citizens wanting a break on their insurance rates. Our oldest student was 92.
S-R: Should a 92-year-old be driving?
Seitz: The key is making sure older drivers are self-aware. My wife’s grandfather was a retired wheat farmer who lived on his own until he passed away at 99. He never gave up his license and never gave up his car. But he got to a point when he knew he shouldn’t be driving at night. Then he got to a point when he knew he should avoid heavy traffic. Eventually the only thing he did was load his garbage into the trunk, back the car up to the dumpster where he lived, throw the garbage in and drive back into the garage. He never gave up driving, but he put restrictions on himself. That’s what we encourage older drivers to do. Don’t force your kids to take away your keys.
S-R: What are your thoughts about self-driving cars?
Seitz: (laugh) They scare the crap out of me. Think of how many times our computers crash. We’ve only had self-driving cars for a short while, and they’ve already killed how many people?
S-R: How about sensors that warn us of possible collisions?
Seitz: My wife’s car has one and it drives me crazy, because I’m backing out of a stall and beep-beep-beep, even when I’m nowhere near anything. Another problem is relying exclusively on backup cameras. The new cameras are pretty clear, but they only give you a funnel of vision. We’ve had two driver’s ed cars hit by people backing out of stalls while only looking at their cameras.
S-R: When you see someone talking on their phone while driving, what goes through your mind?
Seitz: That I’m glad I sold my motorcycle a few years ago!
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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