Seattle schools put the brakes on driver’s ed

Jul 24, 2012, 9:19 AM | Updated: 2:42 pm
Ballard High driving instructor Mick McDonald stands next to his mobile classroom after giving his final driving lesson of a 44-year career (Photo courtesy Mick McDonald)
(Photo courtesy Mick McDonald)

He’s been teaching kids to drive for over 40 years, but
when Mick McDonald parked his old Chevy Cavalier Tuesday,
it would be the last time. The Seattle School District
has officially put the brakes on driver’s education after
44 years.

“I’m shaking my head at that one,” McDonald, 73, says
about the decision to end what’s been a rite of passage
for thousands of local teens.

Officially, the district says it’s dropping driver’s ed
because it isn’t a core part of the mission to prepare
kids for college. Young drivers will now have to rely
solely on private schools to get the training required to
get a license.

Unofficially, McDonald says it’s simply a matter of money.
“It’s the economy. When I first offered it at Ballard
High School it was $25. Now it’s $599.”

The state requires all drivers under 18 take a driver’s
education course, along with having a learners
permit for at least six months.

In the past, McDonald says the district would teach around
7,000 young drivers every year. But when the state cut
funding in the last decade, enrollment plummeted as many
students simply couldn’t afford to take the class. This
year, only 600 kids have gone through the program.

McDonald says that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if they
all stayed out from behind the wheel.

“A lot of these kids are just going to get behind the
wheel regardless, with no insurance and no license. It’s
kind
of a sad time to think all these people are going to be
out there.”

Many aren’t. Students used to race to get their licenses
as soon as they turned 16, but many are simply putting it
off and relying on their parents and public
transportation.

McDonald has certainly seen plenty from the passenger
seat. Even with the gas pedal and brake at his disposal,
it can
get pretty sketchy turning over the reigns to a young
driver.

He recounts taking a fledgling student on the freeway for
the first time. McDonald wanted her to get a feel for the
passing gear when you step on the accelerator. It didn’t
go as planned.

“I said ‘now hit it’ and she jammed up the brakes and went
into a 4-wheel skid at about 60 miles an hour,” he
remembers. While it gave him a bit of a scare, it was far
more of a fright for the two other students in the
backseat.

“Their eyes were the size of silver dollars and their
mouths were hanging open,” he laughs.

There were plenty of comic moments over the
years, like the time another student put her finger in the
hole of the seat belt buckle and got it stuck. McDonald
says he ultimately combined driving skills with some life
lessons. They went to the local doughnut shop and got
some
lard to free her.

McDonald has taught thousands of kids how to drive over
the decades and still runs into his former students around
Ballard, many who have parents he also taught to drive in
years past.

“I’ve had a lot of good times and met a lot of wonderful
kids,” McDonald says. “You get to know these kids. I’ve
seen them blossom as they go on to bigger things.”

Now, as he parks the old Chevy Cavalier for the last time,
he can only hope when he runs into his former students,
it’s not on the road.

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Seattle schools put the brakes on driver’s ed