I’d like you to think back to your younger days – specifically, those days when you were too young to have a driver’s license, but old enough to know that it was something you desperately needed. The days of driver’s ed.
One thing you should know about South Dakota is that it’s ridiculously easy to get your learner’s permit. At least, it was easy twelve years ago when I was about to ascend into the ranks of motor vehicle operators. In South Dakota, you can get your learner’s permit at 14. I guess the DMV figured that you’d been driving farm equipment since you were old enough to reach the pedals anyway (which is totally true – in my case, since I was eight), so you might as well get a license already.
The easiest way to get said learner’s permit was to go through driver’s education. Not only would it result in cheaper insurance for your parents (whose good side you wanted to be on, because what good is a driver’s license if your parents wouldn’t let you drive their car?), but it meant that you spent less time having to drive with a parent and that you could avoid the DMV road test when you turned 16 and got your regular license.
Most schools offer driver’s ed as a class during the school year: but not Arlington. We had to sacrifice a chunk of our extremely valuable summer vacation to be in driver’s ed. It was held at the school, so even though it was June, we still had to drag ourselves back to the classrooms and try to focus.
My memory may not serve me correctly here, but I recall us only having three full days of class and two half-days. The rest of the two half-days was spent with the driver’s ed teacher taking us in threes and having us drive around town. After that initial week, we each were assigned two three-hour driving shifts with the driver’s ed teacher. However, those shifts were shared with another student, so you only ended up driving an hour and a half each time. Then, if you did well enough on your written test and in the car, the teacher would sign your little form, and off you went to get your learner’s permit, which would magically turn into a restricted permit in just three months’ time.
So here’s your summary: a few days of classes + about three hours of driving + one state with easy-peasy driver’s ed requirements = instant license.
Of course, it didn’t seem so easy at the time. You had to get up SO EARLY (probably 7? I know, what a tragedy) during the summer and sit in a stuffy classroom for DAYS, and then you had to drive around in an old white Buick clearly labeled “student driver.” SO EMBARRASSING. Luckily, you didn’t have to worry about any of your friend seeing you because they were all in driver’s ed right along with you.
I remember very little about the classes themselves, except that they were in our FACS (Family and Consumer Science to the layperson) classroom and that we spent more time watching videos about horrific traffic accidents than actually learning about traffic laws. I also remember eating ham and cheese Lunchables in the gym for lunch. Clearly, my brain doesn’t prioritize very well.
The written test came at the end of these days of classes, and that was a lengthy multiple-choice exam that I passed with something like a 95%. If you passed the written test (and I think we all did), that meant that we could actually take the car on the road.
The initial driving portion consisted of only about fifteen minutes of actual drive time. You, the driver’s ed teacher, and two other students got in the car and proceeded to cruise around Arlington. No big deal.
The outside of class driving was when things started to get serious. The driver’s ed teacher wanted you at the school at something like 7 in the morning so you’d miss all the traffic (and I use “traffic” in the loosest sense of the word. We’re talking rural South Dakota, after all). My driving partner was from Volga, so I’d have to show up in Arlington and spend an agonizing fifteen minutes in the car by myself with the driver’s ed instructor while we went to pick up my co-driver.
Day One of driving had us tooling around Brookings. Brookings was significantly more intimidating than Arlington: unlike Arlington, it actually had stoplights. We learned about changing lanes, and we practiced gliding into parking spaces in the WalMart parking lot. Day Two was solely about learning how to drive on the interstate. If we made it through those two obstacles, we were awarded with a license.
Our driver’s ed instructor was a weird guy. During one of our driving sessions, he had us stop by his house so he could pick up something he had to return to WalMart (which is how we ended up doing our parking practice at WalMart). He would eat sunflower seeds the WHOLE TIME you were driving, and he’d spit the shells into this gigantic plastic cup. He never emptied said cup, so each time you were in that car, the pile of spit-soaked sunflower seed shells had inched a bit closer to the brim. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it was disgusting. This instructor would also sing along to the radio, which was distracting all on its own. To make matters worse, he had the radio tuned to the pop station, so that meant that he was singing along to the likes of Britney Spears. If you’ve ever been a fourteen-year-old trying to drive through Brookings for the first time while a middle-aged man sings “Oops I Did It Again” in falsetto, you know how uncomfortable I was. If not, then consider yourself fortunate.
All that, though, had the desired end result: I got my learner’s permit. After three months of driving only with a licensed driver in tow, my learner’s permit became restricted, which meant that we could only drive between the hours of 7am and 8pm (which – I think – has since been changed to accommodate for early morning practices and games that run into the evening). Then, at 16, I headed back to the DMV to trade in my green coded restricted license for a red coded under 21 license. (It was blue when you were 21 – unless you had a CDL, and then it was yellowish-brown. Aren’t you glad to have all this vital information about now-defunct SD drivers licenses?)
That red non-restricted license was a godsend. It meant that my friends and I no longer had to worry about getting home before 8 – we could go to the movie that started at 7! We could drive to Sioux Falls and not have to leave by 630! (Not that I was brave enough for that when I was 16, but it was nice to have the option.) We could do anything! SWEET, SWEET FREEDOM!!!!!
It wasn’t until I was out and driving with my restricted license (and later on, my regular license) that I realized just how much driver’s ed didn’t cover. For example: I got my very first ticket at 14 when I made a left to park. We didn’t learn that in driver’s ed, but that wasn’t a good enough excuse for the police officer that pulled me over – I got a hefty ticket and even lost my license for 30 days. (Since it was a restricted license, they took it away if you did anything wrong.) But on the bright side, I’ve never made that mistake again!
My lack of a real driver’s education course became even more obvious when I talked to my friends and family from other states. My cousins in Colorado told me about how they had to log something like 30 hours of daytime driving and 20 hours of nighttime driving with their parents. James (who grew up in Minnesota) told me about how he and his brothers would set up cones in their driveway and practice parallel parking. Parallel parking wasn’t covered in my driver’s ed – there may have been a picture of it in a textbook, but we certainly didn’t have to parallel park. That would probably explain why there’s so little parallel parking in Sioux Falls, and when there is, why people are always parked with either their wheels on the curb or with five feet in between the curb and the car. I didn’t actually learn how to parallel park until I lived in Minneapolis and it was a requirement for survival. Yes: I was 22 years old before I could parallel park.
My gaps in driver’s ed knowledge also came to the surface when it came time for me to trade in my SD license for a Minnesota one. Minnesota requires out-of-staters to retake the written test in order to get their MN license. I took one look at the practice tests and almost died. To say that Minnesota is more comprehensive than South Dakota is a horrendous understatement. I studied for days, and even then, I only passed by one question. But in my defense, the test asked things like “How many feet should be in between your car and a bicycle when the bicycle is riding next to you on a city street?” Who knows that stuff anyway??