Things weren't quite so simple for Paula Thiewes, when she took her driver's education course in 1969. Even though I wasn't leaning over her shoulder in the classroom at the time, I can tell that Paula learned a heck of a lot more than I did during driver's ed, just from reading her notes.
I can tell she learned a heck of a lot more than I did during driver's ed, just from reading her notes.
Paula recently found her old class notes when sorting through a box of high school memorabilia. "Driving was a big deal" for Paula, who felt sentimental enough about her time learning to drive that she held on to her meticulously prepared papers from the class. She recently shared this time capsule of driving ephemera with her car-nut son Jake, who in turn scanned all 30 pages, and posted the gallery on Reddit where it is currently still in the process of blowing up.
I spoke with Paula this afternoon to talk a little bit about what things were like, then versus now. Just like lots of us, Paula recounts that she was 15 years old when she took the class. Her Virginia high school made driver's education a mandatory full-semester course. That amount of time dedicated meant that kids were thoroughly schooled in the basics of a car's greasy bits – one assignment saw Paula changing the tire of the family Fiat under the watchful eye of her father – as well as the best advice of the day in terms of safety and rules of the road.
The notes are remarkably interesting to browse, including teacher-espoused one-liners ("jackrabbit driving may save time but you may lose your life"), loads of hand-drawn diagrams, and the ever-important "Three Cs" (Concentration, Control, Courtesy).
What's more, Paula's driver's ed class seems to have jumpstarted a lifelong love of cars. Her car-geek cred is strong: Paula learned to operate a manual transmission on a Volkswagen Type 3 "Squareback," her favorite car amongst those she's owned was a 1985 Honda CRX Si, and even today she has a Chrysler Crossfire with a manual transmission that she's taken autocrossing with her son. Those fundamentals she learned in high school have served her well. Paula tells me that she had no problems parallel parking when she lived San Francisco's notoriously hilly streets, and most remarkably, she revealed that she's not had one ticket in 43 years of driving.
Paula admits that kids today have got a tougher task ahead of them than did her generation. "When we were kids, we didn't have the distraction of texting and cell phones." She said, recounting that it was her and her husband's instructions that made up for a deficit in classroom time when her son was training to drive.
So far, the Reddit community tends to agree with her. In the day or so that the post has been live, commenters on the site have found tons to talk about; mostly recounting their own driver's ed experiences, with younger people having had similar, low-intensity experiences like my first training. They've also had to pay a lot more for the privilege. Where Paula's class was a part of the curriculum and my high school offered it free to students, these days it's typical for American teens to spend more than $400 for classes.
Paula's driver's ed class seems to have jumpstarted a lifelong love of cars. Her car-geek cred is strong.
That's nothing in comparison to some of the European experiences, however. Reddit commenters from Denmark, Norway and Sweden have reinforced that modern training across the Atlantic is at least as comprehensive as that which Paula got in 1969. Tales of driving tests in many real-world situations (with plenty of low-grip stuff thrown at them up in the northern reaches of the world) and paying the equivalent of $3,000 or more seem to be the norm rather than the exception.
We even got in touch with our old friend Damon Lavrinc – currently the Transportation Editor at Wired and former instructor at his family's driver's training school – for some insight into what he saw in these decades-old training notes. Damon agrees that current classes don't have time to lavish detail on running gear, as did Paula's notes.
"Cars used to be a completely mechanical affair, so there wasn't just a basic focus on troubleshooting and maintenance, but a thorough understanding of every single element that makes it go, stop and turn," he says.
But Damon still says that there has been a "revolution" in the industry in terms of how good instructors train now. What he really sees lacking in the 1969 notes is, "...Anything to do with defensive driving, vision techniques and situational awareness. And what was included was very outdated, like proper following distance (it's based on time, not car lengths)."
Whether you were trained with care or with inattention, chances are good that your first driving experiences – including driver's education – stick in your brain. As Paula pointed out with fondness, "It's one of the coolest chapters in your life to get that license." I couldn't agree more. Take some time to scroll through her notes, to remember your own first days of driving.