BATTLE GROUND — Many of us can recall preparing for our first driving test as a teenager. It’s often a cocktail of excitement and agony — why, oh why, our teenage-selves lament, can’t we just jump in the car and go? More tests?
Of course, the world would be much more dangerous, were that the case.
On a recent Tuesday at Wake’s Driving School in Battle Ground, 15-year-old Simon Rommel, a soon-to-be sophomore at Firm Foundation Christian School, was shyly waiting to start his next practice drive with instructor Larry Bowman.
“Freedom, I guess. And to get away from my mom,” Simon joked of his reason for wanting to get his driver’s license. His mother, Jessica Rommel, laughed. She had two children before Simon attend the school, which earned her the family discount. Normally tuition is $410 — which includes 15 required classes, two attempts at the Department of Licensing knowledge test, and six practice drives.
“You think that, but she’s going to be like, ‘Here’s the list …,’ ” said Bowman. He uses humor as a tool to help his students feel at ease. “I like to kid with these guys and keep it comfortable, so they’re relaxed.”
Bowman, 45, has been on the job as an instructor for only a year and a half, after a longer career as a restaurateur, including at several Burger Kings and the former Oak Tree restaurant in Woodland.
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“I was just stressed to the T,” Bowman said of his previous career. He had a friend who worked at Wake’s, and went through the process to become a state-certified instructor. The school is owned by Ann Wakefield and opened in 2002.
“I’ll be honest, that doesn’t sound stressless,” he said of his first thoughts about the job. Then he sat in on a few drives with his friend. “I was hooked. I love the interaction with the kids. I love the ability to mold kids to not be bad drivers.”
He said the most challenging part of the job is getting parents to practice with their children outside of driving school.
“I get it. Kids are scary; they’re driving your vehicle. That’s the car you take to go to work, to do errands or whatever. It’s your baby. But your baby is also the kid, and you need to teach them. And if they aren’t good, spend more time with them,” Bowman said.
On the road
In the parking lot at the school, Simon and Bowman, clipboard in hand, got into the car after a quick outside inspection. Simon, used to his parents’ car at home (he’s saving up for his own), attempted to put the car in reverse, but accidentally engaged the windshield wipers.
Wake’s Driving School
Location: 105 W. Main St., Suite 103, Battle Ground
Number of employees: Five instructors and one office clerk.
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: The bureau doesn’t track the driving instructor occupation specifically, but more broadly falls under career and technical education teachers, which it expects to grow by 4 percent through 2026. “Demand for these teachers will be driven by a continued need for programs that prepare students for career and technical work,” it reports. The annual mean wage for the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area for middle school- and high school-level instructors is $74,580 annually, according to the bureau. In Battle Ground, Larry Bowman makes an hourly wage of $16.
Bowman also told Simon to be sure to plant his hands at 8 and 4 (a.m. and p.m., like hands on a clock) over the steering wheel — a change from previous generations of drivers who were told to grasp the wheel at 10 and 2. The placement is to avoid hands and arms being placed over the top of steering wheel air bags.
After some quick orientation to the school-owned vehicle, they were off on a drive that lasted a bit less than an hour, cruising through Battle Ground and nearby neighborhoods.
Throughout the drive, Bowman pointed out other cars that made mistakes while driving or that were illegally parked. Doing driving instruction full time, he has gotten to know the roads in Battle Ground very well.
“He’s been parked here for two days, by the way,” Bowman said of one errant vehicle. “He’s like 5 feet from the stop sign.” Legally, cars are supposed to be parked at least 30 feet from a stop sign.
Then it was time for the dreaded parallel parking attempt. Or at least, it used to be dreaded. These days, many cars come equipped with backup cameras and can direct drivers in order to achieve perfect parallel parking. But Bowman isn’t convinced.
“You have people who have really nice cars with the backup cameras, which are fantastic for peripherals. If you look at the backup camera, judging the sides is way off unless you know what to look for,” he said. “I see a lot of people rely on that. You just can’t do that — you have to be able to visualize what’s going on around you.”
Simon stopped next to an Acura parked along Rasmussen Boulevard and prepared to park.
“OK, ready? 90 degrees,” Bowman pointed out the driver’s window. “Now 45 (degrees). See that white pole that has the rain spout on it? We’re going to match the middle of this car with that rain spout,” Bowman said. “Slowly, keep the wheel cranked, go backwards. Look backwards, look forwards. Crank the wheel all the way to the left, 100 percent. By the way, that’s like a $60,000 Acura.”
“Jeez, and you’re having me park next to that?” Simon said. But he backed into the spot without any issue.
“There’s a lot of things around the road that weren’t there when we were kids,” Bowman said. “Battle Ground, when we came out here, Brush Prairie had one road. This was like the sticks. Now there’s a lot out here. So they’re going to have to get used to driving with a lot of other people.”
Simon finished his test with good marks.
“Hey, we’re alive,” he said.
But he’s only put in six hours of driving, out of 50 needed to get his license. So Bowman will likely see him again soon.
Did you know?
Washington is considered the most difficult state in which to get a driver’s license, according the personal-injury law firm Siegfried & Jensen, which analyzed state handbooks and public documents in every state, The Seattle Times reported last month.
In Washington, schools are responsible for teaching teens how to drive. A few public school districts still offer driver’s education, but there are many more commercial driver’s education schools.
The Department of Licensing oversees the programs, but the state does not provide any funding for driver’s education programs, either to public or private schools. Some school districts have subsidized the cost of programs with discretionary funds. On average (in 2014), public schools charged $357 per student, while commercial schools charged $450.
“I think when I tell people what I do, their first impression is you must not like your life — you must be a glutton for a death wish. It’s not that way. We talk to these kids, we don’t raise our voice, we don’t yell at them. They’re co-workers to us,” Bowman said.