Learning to drive in D.C.: Through a traffic circle to that rite of passage


Charles Alanders Smith, who runs CAS Driving School, makes his way to pick up a student. Smith is a veteran driving instructor in the District. Learning to drive here? “It’s a doozy,” he says. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

It isn’t every summer day that Jonah Nielsen wakes up at 6:30 a.m., eats scrambled eggs and waits at his front door for a 73-year-old man wearing a fedora.

In fact, it has never happened before, and if all goes according to the fedora man’s plan, it will never happen again.

Jonah calls the man Mr. Smith, as everyone does. After Jonah turned 16, his mom thought of calling Mr. Smith, as she had for her other son. Jonah, however, was not ready. This is D.C., after all, and this ad­ven­ture should not be taken lightly.

But senior year is about to start, and his friend, Mac, has already done it, and it’s embarrassing to ask a girl to come pick you up, so for Jonah, the time is now.

Smith’s car pulls up in front of his house in Cleveland Park.


Michael Stanton, 17, left, practices driving with Charles Alanders Smith on Aug. 12. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

CAS DRIVING SCHOOL, it says. The doorbell rings.

“Do you have everything you need?” Smith asks, looking more at Jonah’s mom in her “Life is good” T-shirt than at his pupil.

“95 percent sure,” Jonah says.

“No! He’s more sure than that!” Mom says.

“96 percent?” Jonah says.

A copy of his mother’s driver’s license, his birth certificate and Social Security card, two proofs of D.C. residency. Jonah slides them into a neon yellow drawstring bag. His cracked-screen iPhone is in there, too, not for texting and driving of course, but for the “after” photo. Should the license be in his hands, or on a table? Instagram then Snapchat, or Snapchat then Instagram? He should focus on actually passing first, but this photo will for sure break 100 likes.

“All right,” Smith says.

“Have fun!” Mom says. “I mean, don’t have fun. Driving is not about fun. It’s about, uh, getting someplace!”

Jonah squirms. Smith lets out a deep chuckle and lifts up his keys.

“Let’s go.”

***

When Malia Obama turned 16 in July, her mother had a message for Washington that’s a favorite joke of parents whose teenagers are about to take to the road: “Look out!”

But off camera, the first lady is likely telling her daughter the same thing: Look. Out. Drivers in the District suffer twice as many car-accident injuries as the national average. And as the city’s population grows, the number of crashes is rising.

These dangerous roads are where hundreds of teenagers get behind the wheel when they finally reach 16. In D.C., the first post-birthday milestone is a learner’s permit, and at least six months later, the real 6.5 square inches of freedom-giving plastic. Technically, though, until a new driver turns 18, it’s not limitless freedom — there are restrictions on age and number of passengers and the hours it’s okay to be on the road.

Getting that D.C. license means learning to drive with a high volume of cars, cyclists and pedestrians. In the District, those drivers, bikers and walkers are likely from all around the country, so they might have different expectations for what is normal, such as when it’s okay to turn left into oncoming traffic or at what time a pedestrian has the right of way. Smith, who owns CAS Driving School (the initials stand for Charles Alanders Smith), must teach defensive driving, where a student should assume that other drivers are going to act recklessly.

And of course, he must teach them to tackle D.C.’s local peculiarities: extreme angle turns, speed humps, constant jams on the Beltway, motorcades, streetlights on the side of the road and, worst, those dreaded traffic circles.

“It’s a doozy,” he says.

***

Jonah drives Smith’s silver Toyota Corolla from Cleveland Park to the plaza that the DMV shares with a 7-Eleven and DaVita Dialysis in Northeast Washington. They loop back around toward the entrance, so Jonah can practice leaving the plaza just as he will in 45 minutes, with a test administrator in the passenger seat saying, “Turn right, sir.” “Turn left, sir.”

The turn into oncoming traffic is the first task. Then the traffic circle. With only two lanes, it’s tame as Washington rotaries go, but it’s enough to make Jonah run his fingers through his carefully wafted hair. His mom made him get it cut a few days ago, and it’s still past his ears.

He makes it through, speed gauge hovering around 15 mph. Under Smith’s cautious eye and with a passenger in the back seat, Jonah is nervous, but competent.

If he can pass the test, he can drive to his dad’s house in his stepdad’s black Isuzu Trooper named Betty. If he can pass the test, eventually he can tell Mac that they are going to McDonald’s, not Chick-fil-A. McDonald’s is not better, but it’s a power thing, he says. If he can pass the test, soon he can pick up Megan, who is just a friend. She brought him a bracelet from her trip to Costa Rica, and he’s wearing it today.

“Keep your foot over the brake, not the accelerator,” Smith says as Jonah coasts down a hill. There’s a brake pedal on Smith’s side, just in case.

They park in the plaza again, 10 minutes of practice gone by. Smith walks Jonah into the DMV, where dozens of people are waiting in line under fluorescent lights and a sign that says “No Smoking No Eating No Drinking No Profanity.”

Smith’s gap-tooth smile and Southern drawl are known to just about everyone here, because he comes in nearly every day. And before starting his driving school in 2007, Smith worked for the D.C. DMV for 21 years. He learned to drive when he was 8, on a farm in Tennessee where he could get out of cleaning cotton if he handled the tractor.

He stands by the door with his clipboard, looking behind the desk to see whether the person he wants to talk to is working.

“Do you think I’ll pass?” Jonah asks, quietly enough that Smith doesn’t hear.

“Hold this,” he says, handing over the clipboard and walking away.

Jonah looks after him and runs his hand through his hair.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’ ” he says.

***

Going to the DMV in D.C. probably isn’t any more of a headache than going to DMVs elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it any more of a pleasant experience.

The Brentwood Road location is constantly packed because it is the only DMV office where license tests are administered. It’s where Chelsea Clinton took her test in 1996 (Secret Service cars followed behind, according to DMV employees), and presumably, it’s where Malia Obama will take hers.

The process starts with a written learner’s permit test. What was once a one-page brochure from which students memorized questions and answers is now an 83-page downloadable PDF to study from. It comes with a parent packet for guiding a child through “one of the greatest joys of a teenager’s life.”

“Best wishes on your new journey together,” it says.

That journey must include at least 40 hours of driving, supervised by someone older than 21. This is where Smith and other driving schools can help, for $55 per lesson.

His clients range from energetic teens like Jonah to recent immigrants to single mothers whose lessons are covered by the District’s Child and Family Services Agency.

Sometimes they are naturals. Sometimes they are shaky enough to send a reporter riding in the back seat rushing out to deal with motion sickness.

But Smith always finds a way to help them through, even if it means taking the test more than once.

***

The test is over, and Jonah is filling out a form. Smith is in the back again, talking to someone else. Date of birth. Height. Weight.

143, Jonah pens in blue ink, even though he is really 139. He’s going to get big, soon. And maybe grow some facial hair.

“You’re 10 miles under the speed limit, sir,” the test administrator had said soon after Jonah survived the traffic circle. “Going too slow is just as dangerous as going too fast.”

A few minutes later, he said it again. “Second warning on going too slow.” Jonah sped up.

It was all over in six minutes.

Telephone number. E-mail address.

Jonah sets the pen down. He is waiting in line anyway, so he has time.

He pulls out his phone, taps the green button for messages and types in the conversations with Megan, then Mac, then Mom.

“Passed.”

Jessica Contrera is a staff writer at the Washington Post.
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