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Driver Education a valuable high school program

Local instructors help teens develop safe driving habits

Cars are well marked to alert others of a novice driver.

Reasons may vary why adults are lending, or have lent, time to the High School Driver Education (Driver Ed) program, but one thing is clear — they are dedicated to helping teens get off to a good start in the graduated licensing process.

“Certainly the people who teach Driver Ed do so out of a sense of mission more than to make any money at it,” said Dennis Schoonbaert, who was involved with Driver Ed for 41 years, and at one time owned and operated 16, 21 & 42 Driving School out of Shoal Lake.

“While I’m not involved with the Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) program at present, I’m extremely proud to say a number of features of the program were tried here in Shoal Lake and then became required parts of the provincial program. Those included inviting parents to attend the first class; emphasizing the importance of parents taking an active role in training and monitoring new drivers; and the introduction of a co-pilot’s manual.”

Schoonbaert said the motivating factor to open a driving school was the fact that his wife Evelyn (who was his girlfriend at the time) was involved in a serious car accident in which one of her best friends was killed. The accident happened during a trip home to Rossburn from university in Winnipeg.

“It had a huge impact on me, and I was convinced seatbelts would’ve made a difference, and vowed to get involved in Driver Ed to try to make a difference,” said Schoonbaert, a former principal of Shoal Lake School. “I was blessed to have the dedication of Karen Mathison in Hamiota, and fellow Shoal Lake resident, Dave Stewart, instructing students while in operation.”

Edith Galloway shares Schoonbaert’s desire to help area teens develop safe driving habits, offering Driver Ed classes in Birtle and Russell.

“Enjoying young people, there is good in every student, and as an instructor you need patience to instruct and bring out the best in each and every one,” said Galloway, secretary at the Birtle Elementary School during the day. “Since becoming involved, I would say I have taught approximately 1,000 students passing through the program.”

Introduced by MPI in 1987, the program remains very worthwhile today, according to the men and women who deliver the program across the province to 170 Manitoba high schools.

Full-time students are encouraged at the age of 15-1/2 to enrol in the subsidized program, which gives them 34 hours of in-class instruction, eight hours of behind-the-wheel training and eight hours of in-car observation. The cost to enrol in Driver Education is $50 per student, as MPI subsidizes the course fees (approximately $300 per student) to ensure the program is accessible to everyone.

Feeling Driver Ed is a valuable program that needs to be kept alive in the rural area, Ken Kirk of Hamiota has recently picked up where Schoonbaert left off, and is now instructing in Hamiota and Shoal Lake.

The curriculum covers topics such as basic driving skills, rules of the road, novice drivers’ risk assessment, impaired driving consequences, defensive driving, winter challenges and gravel road driving.

“Along with local driving, we like to take students to Brandon a few times, as small communities don’t present scenarios of traffic lights and roundabouts,” said Kirk. “Travelling gravel roads is mandatory, and I feel it is very important for students to learn how a vehicle handles on gravel versus pavement.”

Galloway agrees. “It’s beneficial to expose new drivers to all situations in the surrounding area including highway and city driving,” she said. “Gravel roads have always been part of my driving training, sharing tips to watch out for animals, farm equipment, driving through dust, and the distance required, all with safety in mind.”

Instructors are an important part of Driver Ed across Manitoba but parental involvement is critical to their teen’s success as a new driver. Working together, they are helping them get behind the wheel in the safest way possible.

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