It’s that time again when residents see a “student driver” sign on a vehicle and teenage driver’s behind the wheel.
The USD 408 driver’s education course runs for three weeks from June 7 through June 26 and is taught in two parts.
While the classroom portion of the course is black and white, the driving portion provides more variables to the equation.
Retired Marion Middle School teacher Steve Janzen teaches the classroom portion of the course. There students learn the rules of the road. They learn the “Driver’s Handbook” and can take a test which allows them a temporary permit, or if they wish they can get a full permit from the motor vehicles department at Marion County Courthouse.
They also use a textbook, “Responsible Driving” and they go through the chapters of the book one at a time. When they’ve reviewed the chapter well enough, the students take a test on the chapter on Blackboard, an Internet computer program, using a laptop computer.
Some students meet for classroom instruction in the morning and drive in the afternoon while others drive in the morning and take the class in the afternoon.
The students invariably have more time in the classroom with two weeks spent behind desks and a week on the road because only eight people can drive at a time.
“It seems like we should have two weeks of driving and one week of book stuff,” student Jared Hague said.
Marion High School band teacher Adam Johnson and retired teacher Doug Vogel instruct the driving portion of the course.
In Johnson’s van Friday — a late 1990s Dodge Caravan equipped with a second mirror and brake on the passenger side of the vehicle —he had four students: Hague, Elizabeth Goentzel, Jacob Harper, and Amanda Stuchlik, each of whom had varying levels of experience.
Goentzel was the first student behind the wheel and she drove west on U.S. 56 from Marion to McPherson. The students have to commute to McPherson or Newton to drive on a road with stoplights and have a chance to drive on an interstate highway.
Goentzel was the most experienced driver of the group, having procured her permit earlier that year. She had already spent hours driving with her parents.
“I don’t have to tell her to do anything,” Johnson said. “The other three I have to coach still.”
Goentzel, Hague, and Harper had restricted licenses by Friday. A restricted license is part of the new set of Kansas driving laws. Students can receive a farm permit at 14 years old, allowing them to drive from any farm job, employment, or other farm related work. They can also earn an instruction permit at 14, which allows them to drive with an adult.
Restricted licenses can only be earned when a student is 15 years old through a driver’s education class. With a restricted license, students can drive to and from school, employment, or school-related events by themselves. When the student reaches 16 and one- half, they can drive by themselves at any time between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Students cannot receive a full license until they are 17 years old.
When the students reached McPherson, Goentzel parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot and a different student took over as driver. Johnson used the parking lot to illustrate the unpredictability of other drivers. The parking lot has no half way divide like many big parking lots, but cars cut through lanes of spaces despite the absence of a lane. A person following the rules of the road would be susceptible to an accident if they weren’t paying attention.
“With parking lots you have to be especially careful,” Johnson said.
In another aspect of understanding the surroundings, Johnson warns students that pedestrians always have the right of way.
“They will do whatever they want as slow as they want and you have to wait,” he said. “That’s America.”
As other exercises in driver awareness, Johnson directed the students through three different fast-food restaurant parking lots having the students enter, park, back out, and exit following the proper procedure.
“Restaurant parking lots are good because they’re all different,” Johnson said.
He will also tell the student to turn at a location even though it is out of view as a practice of the directions they might receive as a passenger.
When students struggle, it is usually because of indecision. Inexperienced drivers have a tendency to float. For instance, Johnson corrected one driver on Friday for making an incorrect left turn; instead of turning into the lane closest to them, they took a wide turn into the right-hand lane.
When encountering another left-hand turn, the driver made the same mistake and figured out the error in the middle of the turn. The driver then swerved in between both lanes until deciding on the left lane.
Johnson would rather have a driver make the wrong decision than no decision.
It doesn’t help having an audience of students to add extra pressure.
“That’s what breaks my heart,” Johnson said. “One or two of these kids have hardly driven at all.”
But, even when a driver struggled, Johnson stayed calm. He didn’t raise his voice he just calmly gave directions.
“I have the brake,” Johnson said. “If death is upon us I can hit the brake.”
The students unanimously said that Johnson had only used the brake once, allowing the students to freeze up but then work themselves out of the jam.
“You let them go up over the curb sometimes,” Johnson said.
The mixture of real world trial and error and the strict rules of the road drilled into students in class makes Janzen believe that Marion will not cut its driver’s education class as other schools have for budgetary reasons.
“We’re going to try to keep this as long as we can,” he said.