Every day, just before dawn, you can spot Christian Kuete, a 24-year-old pre-med student and home health aide from Cameroon, sprinting in his beat-up sneakers to catch Metro Bus 20 as it bumps to a stop along University Boulevard in Langley Park. At 8 a.m., two more buses and two hours later, Kuete arrives at work. By dusk, he’s back on mass transit, headed to his night classes at Montgomery College.
On this sunny fall afternoon, however, he’s trying to seize his piece of the American dream. Seize it by the steering wheel. Kuete is a student at the Riteway Driving School in Hyattsville, and his goal is to take its Toyota Corolla onto the open highway — the ultimate metaphor for American independence.
But first he needs to get out of this strip-mall parking lot.
“Let’s begin to move,” says his instructor, Isaac Vodi, a gentle, 64-year-old former taxi driver.
“Wait!” Vodi’s normally melodic voice rises slightly. “Check your mirrors.”
Thud. Kuete taps the bumper of a parked car while backing out.
Every year, legions of immigrants from all over the world must learn to navigate Washington’s crazy quilt of traffic circles, one-way streets, cul-de-sacs, Beltway merges and, most recently, bike lanes. Driving instructors in the Washington region jokingly call it “the other DWI” — Driving While Immigrant.
“The world lives here and sooner or later they drive here,” says Riteway owner Vodi, who is from Ghana and now lives in Lanham.
While there are plenty of inept drivers who are American-born, driving in the U.S. poses specific challenges for non-English speakers — not least of which is bearing the brunt of foreign-driver stereotypes. Adults relearning to drive in a country with stricter traffic laws than their own must first unlearn their old habits. Driving backward down a one-way street, for instance, is fairly common elsewhere in the world, says Jose Ucles, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Washington-based government agency.
As one of the most international regions in the country, the Washington metro area is home to drivers from countries where there is little or no driver education, where the rule of law is weak, the roads are narrow and everyone knows you can pay a “fine” (a.k.a. a bribe) if you’re caught driving without a license or proper documentation.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India, Kenya and Nigeria consistently have the world’s highest rates of traffic fatalities. About 90 percent of traffic injuries occur in developing countries, according to a 2009 report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the most recent data available.
“I know firsthand how people drive in our countries and it’s, wow, just chaotic. In Spanish, we say on the roads it’s ‘The law of the strongest,’ where the biggest car will cut everyone else off,” said Ucles, who’s originally from Honduras and has worked on dozens of television and Internet campaigns with local Spanish-language news stations.
“Many countries don’t have the wonderful traffic-safety laws that we do” he said. “So once they come to Washington, it’s really about education.” Ucles’s agency does not keep data on the number of traffic accidents caused by recent arrivals to the U.S., nor does law enforcement.
But teachers such as Vodi say that their adult clients are mostly immigrants. Vodi — who specializes in “re-teaching” drivers — speaks French and English as well as Ewe and Twi, two Ghanian languages. That gives him a natural rapport with his students and great word-of-mouth business among French-speaking West African immigrants.
Is Vodi ever scared?
“All the time!” he says, as he grabs the wheel from Kuete and steers him back into his lane.
Short and compact with circular eyeglasses, a calm demeanor and a neatly trimmed goatee, Vodi was born the seventh son of illiterate rural cocoa farmers in Axim, a costal region of Ghana.
His parents never drove.
He has three vertical cuts under each eye, which, he explains, “are traditional Ghanian marking for the seventh born, which is considered special and expected to achieve professional success.”
They are not, he jokes, from a car accident.
Vodi was the only sibling to leave home. He went to bilingual secretarial school in Accra, the nation’s capital, and got a job with Air Afrique. He came to the United States on a tourist visa in 1978, and ultimately became an American citizen in 2002.
He’d driven only a little bit in Ghana, but “nobody there follows any traffic rules. People drive on sidewalks! They pass on the right! It’s not for the faint-hearted.”
When he arrived in Maryland, he failed his driving test.
He passed in 1980. For a decade, he worked at the Embassy of Ghana and the World Bank, doing office and translation work. In 1995, he became a taxi driver because he thought it would pay well. One day, he noticed a driving-school car when he was stopped at a gas station.
“I thought maybe I could do that. By then, I was married and had three children and the bills were piling up,” says Vodi, who was licensed to teach driving in Maryland and opened his school in 1996 with his wife, Gladys.
His recent students include new drivers who came to Washington and its traffic-snarled suburbs from India, Togo, Afghanistan, Haiti and El Salvador, with what Vodi calls “reckless, just reckless habits.” Every country, he says, has its own idiosyncratic driving style.
One tendency, however, is universal. Drivers in every country disregard pedestrians, Vodi says. “They feel they have power and status in a car.”
On a recent weeknight, Kuete climbed into the Corolla for another lesson at Riteway. The school’s 1970s-style office building is also home to a Nigerian dentist, a Vietnamese tax lawyer and a Spanish-speaking chiropractor, who could come in handy if there’s an accident, Vodi noted with a chuckle. To get a certificate of completion, students must log 30 hours of classroom time and six hours of on-the-road instruction.
In class, Vodi asks his international students to share their experiences. Some say they don’t have any idea how to drive in the ice and snow, since most of their countries have warm climates. Others such as Kuete are just overwhelmed by the scale of American highways, compared to Africa’s narrow, bumpy roads.
“It’s like training a baby bird,” Vodi says. Kuete’s hands tightly grip the steering wheel as he lurches along Route 1, past the University of Maryland, into Greenbelt, and finally to Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration in Beltsville, where they go to watch other drivers take their road tests.
A smattering of observers stand on the sidelines. As they watch, a driver — who is later discovered to be Ghanaian — fails the test for running a stop sign on the course.
After his lesson, Kuete says he’s exhausted. He’s not ready yet, but he’s hopeful he’ll pass eventually. “Right now, I’m not as confident as I want to be,” Kuete says, pushing his rectangular glasses closer to his face as he takes off on foot to cross the highway and catch the bus to physics class.
“I’m going to keep learning. But right now, I’m still taking the bus.”