They take the wheel in the parking lot. They take their time buckling up, adjusting the mirrors, finding the brakes and getting reacquainted with the car.
When Danny King climbs into the passenger seat, the state-licensed driver’s education teacher makes sure his student has a chance to warm up before getting onto the road.
Like Kate Brenner-Simpson of Ellsworth. The 18-year-old violist fulfilled the required 30 hours of classroom hours and 10 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction before earning her learner’s permit. She got her license last year.
“I was a little scared at first,” the music student recalled of her driver’s ed experience. “But it was kind of fun. It was like being in a video game, but your real life’s at stake.”
This year, millions of newly licensed drivers will take to the road at a time when car crashes remain the leading cause of death of U.S. teens. In 2015, 2,333 teens ages 16 to 19 died from car-related injuries, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2017, there were just under 5,000 16-year-olds on the road in Maine. That number was almost exactly split evenly between young men and young women.
In Maine, especially rural parts, cars are essential for young adults getting to and from summer jobs — and often year-round jobs — to cover their living expenses and maybe even save for college. The road, though, to getting behind the wheel is prohibitively expensive. Driver’s ed programs can cost hundreds of dollars. Then there’s the license fees, car purchase and maintenance and many related expenses.
King, who operates King’s Bucksport Driving School and Drivers Edge Driving School in Bangor, previously worked as the night crew manager at Hannaford in Bangor. His driving school’s fleet consists of five cars including 2007 and 2008 Toyota Priuses. He likes students to see the cars’ energy efficiency highlighted in the dashboard display.
King tries to keep his prices at a standard rate.
“I don’t like to gouge people,” he said.
For King, who has taught driving for 17 years, much has changed since he learned to drive. The 60-year-old instructor tries to instill good habits from the start among his students. Cell phones are a big factor.
“Distracted driving right now is at its highest,” he noted. “A lot of kids will say they’re not going to use a cell phone. After driver’s ed, they’ll still use it.”
King said his main focus is on safety and for driving rules to become second nature for his students.
At a recent driver’s ed class at Mount Desert Island High School, King started off with a pop quiz.
Where should cars stop at a railroad crossing? Fifteen feet away.
When are roads most slippery? Ten to 20 minutes after it begins raining.
How far in advance should a driver signal a turn? One hundred feet.
“When you leave driver’s ed, you’re going to hear my voice,” he told the class. “That’s kind of creepy, but that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Elizabeth and Ben Thomas recently completed King’s course at Sumner Memorial High School and have nearly logged the minimum 60 hours of daytime driving and 10 hours of night driving, entitling them to take the written and road tests for their driver’s license next month.
From the Gouldsboro village of Birch Harbor, the siblings are two in a set of triplets. The 16-year-olds help run their family’s seasonal Me & Ben’s Dairy Crème. Their father, Bill, is looking forward to his helpers being able to go on restocking runs.
Meanwhile, Ben and Elizabeth are looking forward to the freedom and flexibility being licensed affords them.
Ben likes driving and plans to travel to and from baseball practice. He’s been saving up for a 2008 Ford Mustang. Sometimes his games are as many as four hours away by car.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, already owns a Ford Taurus.
The siblings say they’ve become hyper-vigilant of how others drive since being taught by King.
“I’m like, ‘Don’t use your phone,’” Elizabeth says she tells other drivers while riding as their passenger. “‘You missed that turn signal.’”
“Danny told us, ‘Don’t eat a burger while talking on your phone and driving with your knee,’” Ben added.
For Kate Brenner-Simpson, driving rules have started to become second nature. A high school senior, she drives each week to and from the Kennebec County town of Sidney, where she studies music at Snow Pond Arts Academy. On weekends, she makes the two-hour drive home to Ellsworth.
Kate enjoys being able to drive friends around now that she’s had her license for nine months. But the sense of freedom comes with a toll.
“There’s also a sense of responsibility,” she said. “You are putting your life and other lives in danger if you’re not careful.”