Safe Driving Is No Accident

By Ron Lee, Program Coordinator

Ed. Note. Ron Lee died in fall 2015, but he didn’t take all of his wisdom with him.

I have no formal training as a teacher. My degree is Poli-Sci/Sociology. Even so, the YWCA hired me to instruct both a Basic Computer and Driver’s Permit class. That was somewhere in the late ‘90s; it was conducted in several Milwaukee County libraries. The program was de-funded after three years.

Although it took me more than 18 months, I found my own funding, took ownership of the Driver’s Ed program, added Adult to the title and relocated it with New Concept Self-Development Center, another non-profit.

Today in 2012, we are now in our twelfth year servicing the general public.

Once upon a time, our public school system provided driver’s education free to all high school juniors and seniors. Then budget cuts decimated the arts, recreational sports, sex and drivers’ ed classes. These are no longer part of the curriculum. Tens of thousands of adults now operate potentially lethal motor vehicles every day illegally in our community.

I have a background and experience in motivation and instruction. In 1994, I was recruited to be the Training Supervisor for Professional Speaking, Inc., the nation’s largest civic and law enforcement fundraising company. With the approval from the Civic & Law Enforcement agencies, I helped to research and write fund-raising scripts and training videos used to train new and long term employees to effectively and legally raise money through telemarketing.

As I was walking down the street recently, I heard a voice yell from the other side, “’Hey Driver’s Ed teacher!” I hear that phrase a surprising number of times. Running over as she opens her purse and, as usually happens in this kind of chance meeting, she proudly pulls out her driver’s license. She had taken my class well over a year ago. “Thank you so much for making a big difference in my life,” she said.

My program is the only on-going free classroom instruction available to qualifying adults needing help to acquire an Instruction Permit.

In 1997, I was hired by the YWCA’s Bridges For Adult Learning Program to instruct their clients to use and understand basic computer operations and instruct a Driver’s Ed class. I was contracted to research and write the Step-By-Step Guide to Getting Your Wisconsin Driver’s License™, an easy-to-use pamphlet detailing the process to own or reinstate a driver’s license. The booklet also included lists of contact numbers for state offices and community-based agencies assisting in this effort.

Owning a valid drivers license is a major component of self sufficiency, leading to economic advancement and better employment opportunities. Driving illegally is directly affected by an individual’s not understanding how to correct their state records for validation or reinstatement of a valid license. Not owning a license directly affects employment because many jobs that offer higher wages and greater employment advancement are unreachable by affordable mass transportation. The first step in owning a valid driver’s license is passing the written state exam - an important and invaluable achievement for transportation and employment. Failing the written test, studies determined, is usually due to literacy issues and/ or learning disabilities.

Driving illegally is a widespread social issue

Milwaukee area residents driving illegally on our roadways with suspended or no driver’s licenses are a widespread social issue. Today, a valid driver’s license is required by many employers as a condition of employment and a key factor affecting upward financial mobility. Recent Wisconsin DMV figures indicate Milwaukee County has over 89,000 suspended or revoked drivers — many still driving on our roads illegally. The leading cause of suspended licenses is the failure to pay civil fines, with the average individual fine totaling less than $250. And of those unlicensed drivers, over 52 percent never had a valid license in the first place. The UWM Employment and Training Institute reported that, in the calendar year 2004, over 52,000 suspended licenses fell into this category.

Nine zip codes targeted by the Wisconsin DOT determined that, of over 60,000 residents, one third of women ages 18–65 did not own a driver’s license, or they had a suspended license. In the male population, the number was 42 percent of over 80,000. One estimate is that, with only $200 in cash, 98 percent of defendants can take all steps necessary to restore a valid driver’s license.

Driver’s License Recovery Taskforce Established

In 2000, the Milwaukee Bar Association, MATC, MPS, Legal Action of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Traffic, Municipal and Circuit Court Judges, State Defender’s Office, New Concepts Development Center, Inc, Community Driver’s Education and others came together to study and research this problem and develop solutions.

Among the barriers we discovered in regards to testing are literacy and learning disabilities, which are major factors in the choice to drive illegally. However, once an individual obtains a permit, she or he encounters other obstacles hindering the ownership of a driver’s license. They include:

  • Lack of funds for professional instruction,
  • No access to a vehicle or a person to drive or practice with and
  • Lack of money to pay outstanding fines & tickets after suspension or revocation

In the fall of 2001, the Driver’s License Recovery Taskforce was established to address the myriad problems and barriers facing adults who drive without a valid license. Among other issues, the Taskforce reinforced the fact that not owning a valid license is an obstacle to better employment and financial growth. In early 2002, I was invited to join the Taskforce Education Committee. There were about six other people sitting at the first Education Committee meeting. As we introduced ourselves, I was struck by the fact that I was the only one at the table with any first hand, on-the-ground experience with the population we were tasked to help.

“I read about this task force in the newspaper,” I said. “I saw Tyrone’s’ name listed as one of the community leaders spearheading this project.” At the time, Tyrone Dumas was employed with the Milwaukee Public School system as Project Manager responsible for the Construction and Design of Neighborhood Schools. “When I was producing stand-up comedy,” I continued, “Tyrone was one of the stand-up comics I would hire for my comedy shows. I found his home number in my comedians roster file and called him. He thought I would be an asset, so here I am.”

The Taskforce quickly adopted my Adult Driver’s Ed Program as the model for the Driver’s Education Pilot Program. The Milwaukee Urban League was tasked to operate, collect data and administer this program under my directorship.

In 2006, as understanding of the complexities evolved for requiring and obtaining legal driving status, the Driver’s License Recovery Taskforce steering committee designed a pilot program to address the many issues facing thousands as it related to license reinstatement and substantial employability. This pilot was the forerunner of the establishment of the Center for Driver’s License Reinstatement & Employability, initially managed by Justice 2000; it is now under the auspices of Wisconsin Community Services (WCS), and housed at MATC, Milwaukee.

Also in 2006, New Concept Self Development Center, Inc., contracted me to be the Program Director to administer the operation and marketing of the Adult Driver’s Education classes. New Concepts, with a grant from the Julia and David Uihlein Charitable Trust Foundation, is directly responsible for the monthly community classes that this program presently conducts.

The Adult Driver’s Ed Program™ is the only classroom instruction that is specifically designed for adults who need to pass the state exam (a direct link to driving legally). Those who enroll on Monday and complete the 12-hour program can be driving legally by the weekend. This is accomplished through a curriculum that prepares and instructs adults to be safe and responsible drivers, while understanding the rules and state laws necessary for driving safely, as promoted by Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Chereece K. looks at her results, drops to her knees and yells “O thank you Lord!” The woman from the DMV looks up at me and we both smile. We’ve seen this reaction before, but hers was heightened by a factor of fifty.

With tears of joy on her cheeks she walks up to me and says, “I’ve failed this test fourteen times, I even paid a driving school to help me, and that didn’t work. Bless you Mr. Lee.”

Now the Adult Driver’s Ed Program works with several non-profit and state organizations that support and develop resources affecting driver’s license recovery and employability issues. These organizations include: The New Concept Self Development Center, Inc., the WI Dept. of Corrections, the Milwaukee Urban League, United Management Opportunity Services [UMOS], Maximus, YWCA, Social Development Center [SDC], Lutheran Social Services and others. Due to the strong link of the justice system and the community, this program is supported and endorsed by a multi-pronged network that understands the importance of these classes while they work directly on licensing issues and client referrals.

Since 1998, the Adult Driver’s Ed program has been conducting classes throughout the Milwaukee area, helping adults to obtain their driver’s permit. Of the 4,500 people who have participated and completed this four-day program, the average age is 30 years old, 65 percent are female, 35 percent are male. The success rate of all participants who pass the DMV permit test is an impressive 79 percent.

Putting former inmates to work

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I cannot work without a license,’” retired Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge James Gramling said when speaking at a jobs initiative conference in 2004.

In 2007, the Adult Driver’s Ed Program was contracted to conduct classes in the Marshall Sherrer Correctional Facility. Marshall Sherrer houses individuals on work release in the final months of their sentencing. Of those who attended, completed and took the state exam, 100 percent passed. In March of 2008, the Adult Driver’s Ed Program was invited by the Department of Corrections to conduct classes at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), which houses men and women 24-hours a day. These individuals are waiting to either be released or transferred to other facilities. The administrators at the DOC realized that these soon-to-be-released inmates needed to be ready for employment and know that owning a driver’s license is a Gateway issue. Gateway issues, among other factors, help reduce recidivism, assist and enhance employment options while helping with day-to-day financial obligations. This successful program has recently received support for its third funding cycle. Of the 435 participants at the MSDF who have completed the program, 99.7 percent have successfully passed the exam.

I’ve conducted over a dozen classes inside a prison. After seeing his test results and realizing that he was now eligible to drive legally, Mr. Harriston, 57 years old, approaches me and says,” This is the proudest day of my life. I can now drive my grandchildren around!”

Teen Suspensions Growing

High school drivers’ education classes, once part of the yearly curriculum for students ages 16 and over, have lost state funding and are conducted in only a select number of Milwaukee area high schools. A state certification for teaching drivers’ education to those under 18 years of age is required to instruct permit classes. To receive this instruction, it must be paid by the student or his family. This alone increases the likelihood that many drivers under the age of 18 will drive without a proper license, and continue to do so until their late 20s.

FTP, Failure to Pay, civil fines is the leading cause of suspended licenses in this age group as well. DOT records have shown that over 9,000 driver’s license suspensions in 2009 had been issued to Milwaukee County teens and of these, 93 percent went to teens that never obtained a valid driver’s license. Seventy-nine percent of suspended licenses are the direct effect of Failure to Pay civil fines – with only 21 percent suspensions due to actual driving, drug and damaged judgment violations.

At the beginning of every class, I say, “I respect you for putting your lives on hold to be here to improve your life. How many of you are tired of asking your friends or family for a ride everywhere? Who’s tired of looking over your shoulder every time you go out driving, knowing that you don’t have a driver’s license in your pocket.” Then I make this assertion: “If you come to class every day, pay attention and ask questions, you can start on Monday and be legally driving by the weekend!”

No other program can make that claim.

For information about Adult Driver’s Ed and other Driver’s License related programs, contact Ron Lee, Program Coordinator at 414 708–7017.

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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on December 29, 2015

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