Drive to succeed

Nichola Taub slips into the driver’s seat and turns the ignition switch. “You want to look in back of you and turn the wheel,” says Robert Stahl, calmly and quietly.

She checks the rear-view mirror and starts to back out of the parking lot below Stahl’s Dollar Driving School office and classroom.

“We’re going to hit the white pole there,” Stahl says, still calm and quiet. “Thaaat’s OK. Very well done.”

“Thank you,” says Taub, calmly and quietly.

We are about to turn right onto Pacific Coast Highway. Stahl quotes, “The Vehicle Code says you must, not you may, signal before turning.”

We head for Malibu Canyon Road. “Nichola has a nice handle on her lane control,” he says of the Louisville High School student. “On breaking and acceleration control she’s a little ahead of schedule.”

To Taub, he asks, “What do you see up ahead?”

“A car pulling out.”

“Are you going to let her in?” he encourages. She slows and the grateful driver waves to her.

“What does the yellow light mean?” Stahl quizzes.

“Slow down,” she answers.

“Slow down if you can,” he corrects her.

We enter the curves of Malibu Canyon. “This is her second lesson,” he announces proudly. “She never drove before the day before yesterday.”

Stahl says he takes students to more urban areas after the student begins to dominate the vehicle. He also recommends they spend more than the minimum requirement of a supervised six hours behind the wheel. “It’s grossly inadequate,” he says. “It was established in the ’40s.”

“What do you see?” he asks her. “A guy turning left.” “You don’t want to insist on the right of way, but you do want to take the right of way when it’s yours,” he says.

The ride through the canyon looks daunting. Stahl says Dollar Driving has won the National Safety Council’s Safest Driving School’s Fleet Award five years in a row. Where’s the dual steering wheel? Stahl says it gives a false sense of security. To whom?

He reminds Taub to look left and right at every intersection along the canyon. “In the Malibu area, you go for so many miles without an intersection, you forget to look.

“Seventy percent of all car accidents are rear-end collisions,” he reports. “One of the things we teach them in class is keeping a very safe following distance. By keeping this more-than-adequate space, we are always in a position to slow down slowly.”

We’re nearing the 101 Freeway. “Have we done the freeway yet?” he asks Taub. “No,” she says. “Let’s try,” he tells her. She gasps.

“I wasn’t nervous my first day because there wasn’t a lot of traffic,” she says. We’re on the freeway, and he suggests a lane change. “Center mirror, side mirror, look over shoulder,” he instructs, and she eases into the next lane. “Now back off from the van to give yourself a good driving distance. Look at all the idiots,” he says.

“The road is paved with idiots,” Taub repeats from his class.

“They learn that one,” says Stahl. He points to other drivers. “Could they get any closer? They’re unbelievable. If they only knew they’re accidents waiting to happen.”

Now on a surface street, “It’s a more difficult environment for the driver,” Stahl says. “Thirty percent of car accidents occur at intersections.” We near an intersection. “Look left, right,” he says, even though we have the right of way.

“PCH is the most dangerous highway in the USA, from Sunset to Trancas,” he says. “It has unique characteristics. There is a long community that sits smack on the highway. It attracts people from all over Southern California who have never been here. There are also an enormous number of foreigners who are going to pull over without thinking just to look. There is also a lot of drinking related to beach activities.”

He says some of his students’ parents ask him to write a contract for the young drivers. In it, the teens promise not to turn left across PCH unless at a traffic signal.

In the next intersection, Taub changes lanes. “It is legal to make lane changes in the intersection, however, it is not necessarily the smartest thing. You might get a ticket for an unsafe lane change, but not an illegal one.”

Back on the freeway, he emphasizes a correct following distance again. “In my generation, we were taught car lengths. But cars were boats then. The advent of compact cars changed that. The ‘Smith System’ started teaching a two- to three-second following distance. We take a fixed object. When the car in front of us passes it, we start counting.” Stahl recommends three to four seconds.

“Back off,” he suddenly warns Taub. “He’s going to cut you off.”

Stahl muses, “Most people, especially teen-agers, from the day they get licensed, have nothing truly compelling them to improve their defensive skills. The only thing that turns that around is an accident or a ticket — which are forms of education.”

He stops to quiz Taub again. “What is the difference between an accident and a crash?”

“Fault,” she says. “We watched a really good video on that.”

“A whole life can end in a second,” says Stahl. “We try to get through to the students in every way we can. We watch blood-and-guts-on-the-floor videos and we see how serious accidents and death and legal repercussions affect whole communities.

“I’ve always been challenged by — Stop! Behind the white line! — the fact that after they get their license, it’s downhill. At my school we do several things. I want something to stick.

“We require them to write an essay in class about loss — life, freedom, mobility. To graduate from class, they have to hand it in. Then, I require them to keep a copy in the glove compartment of their car so they remember how fleeting life is.

“The essays are tremendous. The stuff they have written should be put in a book. I have 70, 80 gems by now.”

Stahl says in addition to teaching teens to drive, he lectures corporate clients. He also teaches refresher and update courses to senior drivers. “They learned how to drive 40 years ago,” he says. “It takes 12 to 18 hours to rehabilitate them.”

Stahl says, with all the driving he does, he still enjoys it. “It doesn’t put me in a state of anxiety because I drive in a comfort zone. I don’t let the students put themselves in a situation that would cause anxiety to themselves or to me.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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