Driving School Meets High Demand

By Cindy Teixeira Nisqually Valley News Correspondent
Posted 10/19/17

After years of hearing from frustrated customers about the lack of choices in Yelm, Scott and Sonya Wheeler opened their 911 Driving School in Yelm last July. 

The couple got in on the ground …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Driving School Meets High Demand

Posted

After years of hearing from frustrated customers about the lack of choices in Yelm, Scott and Sonya Wheeler opened their 911 Driving School in Yelm last July. 

The couple got in on the ground floor of the franchise at its creation because they were friends with the fellow law enforcement officers who started the company. Sonya Wheeler said those founders saw a need for better education for beginning drivers and others as they responded to calls. Of the 13 initial franchises, the Wheelers opened the fourth shop. Sonya was a stay-at-home mom and it seemed like a great opportunity to have a business that was so important.

“I’ve always wanted to work with teens, so it was a good fit for me,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”

Scott Wheeler has been a Pierce County deputy sheriff for 24 years and is also a driving instructor for fellow officers.

They opened in Lacey 11 years ago, and then Tumwater seven years later. They own all 911 schools in Thurston County. It’s a family affair with the couple’s three teenage daughters working in the business, as well as Sonya Wheeler’s parents. They employ 22 instructors who are current or retired law enforcement officers, and examiners who don’t teach but administer the tests. Many of those are retired teachers. Their state compliance administrator is the former head of the state Department of Licensing. 

“She could have worked for anyone,” Sonya Wheeler said, “but she chose to work for us.”

Don Stevens, a retired lieutenant of the Tumwater Police Department, is the main instructor at Yelm. Each instructor hired passes through two interviews, Scott Wheeler said.

“The process is tough and we don’t just hire anyone. We’ve declined to hire a lot of people who apply. And after we hire them, they must attend 100 hours of training required by the state before they can teach,” he said.

“High school programs don’t require that kind of training for their teachers,” Sonya Wheeler said, “and they are not audited by the state.”

All 911 Driving Schools teach curriculum that meets the state’s standards, but their program exceeds state requirements. Training includes classroom time with multimedia presentations, simulator training, driving and observation. Students cannot miss more than three classes and any classes missed must be made up. 

The latest statistics available, Sonya Wheeler said, show 911 Driving School alumni have fewer accidents and citations. Students return regularly to tell instructors how what they learned in school saved their lives or helped them avoid a bad situation.

“It’s always great when former students come back and let the instructors know the class helped them. We love when they come back,” Sonya Wheeler said. “They have a lot of respect for the instructors.”

The cost of driving classes at a 911 schools are higher, Sonya Wheeler said, “because we have higher overhead. The instructors are valuable and require at least $25 an hour. We have a landlord and our offices are always clean. Our cars are safe.”



Currently they are offering a $100 discount for the Nov. 7 class and she said they may extend the offer to the first of the year (a 44-hour Washington teen drivers safety education certification is priced at $595). The Yelm office will be fully staffed and open full time before that class begins. 

Who Needs Lessons

Students range from the “completely inexperienced” to future race car drivers.

One student seemed to be dumbfounded, Scott Wheeler recalled, and looked like something was bothering her. When asked, she wanted to know about the “blue jellyfish.” No one knew what she meant, so they had her draw it on the board. 

“It turned out to be the high beam headlights indicator,” he said laughing.

One of their students went on to become a successful race car driver, and the couple can cite just about every race he won. Are they car race enthusiasts? 

“We weren’t until we had him in our school,” Sonya Wheeler said.

Some students are so nervous or new, they must be driven to the spot where their driving lessons will begin. Because the instructors are, or were cops, some students feel safe to open up about happenings at home. They become incidental therapists, of a sort. 

But not all new drivers are teenagers and many people could use a refresher course. One man paid for a few hours of instruction for his 96-year-old mother. He wanted her to be able to keep her license so she could drive her golf cart to the senior center.

Another couple had placed a stipulation in their wills that when they reached age 70 they would get their driving skills evaluated and relinquish their license if advised by the instructor. Sadly, Sonya Wheeler said, the man was advised to give up his, but his wife was fine.

“That was hard. It’s hard to tell someone they can’t drive anymore,” she said.

They also work with drivers who have been traumatized by a crash and have become afraid to drive. They have one such student in Yelm now, Sonya Wheeler said. 

“She went to another school and told us she didn’t learn enough to be safe there,” Sonya Wheeler said. “We are helping her get back on the road and she’s made a lot of progress.”

Comments

No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here