PITTSFIELD — The year Dave Coco became a driving instructor, Richard Nixon was president, gas was 36 cents a gallon and the average price of a new car was $3,500, or about $44,000 from less than today.
That was 1972. Years, miles and inflationary dollars ago.
“I can’t believe it went by so quickly,” said Coco, owner of Dave’s Driving School in Pittsfield.
Coco has seen just about everything the road has to offer in half a century of learning to ride. Some things have changed – vehicles are much safer than before, he says. But the dangers facing drivers? They are always the same.
The same goes for teaching methods. Fifteen years after retiring from a 36-year career as a Pittsfield public school math teacher, Coco still takes to the wheel to help all comers. He recently taught driving to newly arrived Afghan refugees.
“I think it’s a very important occupation,” he said.
We asked Coco why. That’s what he told us.
Q: Why did you become a driving instructor?
A: I went to Central Connecticut State College (now Central Connecticut State University) to become a math teacher. As I got closer to my freshman year, I was able to take a few electives. There was a driving course I could take. It sounded like an interesting class so I took it, and the teacher was exceptional. It made me realize how important it is to drive safely.
Q: Is that why you decided to make it your career?
A: Since I was going to teach math to teenagers, I realized that staying healthy was very, very important and since someone was going to (drive) every day of their life, I could be a big influence in saving them life. Then as now, car accidents were the leading cause of death among teenagers. I had a very strong interest in trying to serve the students I was teaching in a special way. So I took four courses. When I came back to Pittsfield I was able to get a teaching job and they needed a driving instructor so I took it. I did it after school.
The 2½ proposal forced a lot of teachers to be fired and I was one of them. Having a dependent family, I created my own business. Thank goodness I was called back as a teacher, but it made me nervous about being fired again, so I continued the business.
Q: Why is teaching people to drive so important to you?
A: The most important person in a family is a child. So many accidents happen because they don’t need to happen. They are useless. You can teach a student to avoid a serious accident.
Q: So what does a driving instructor actually do?
A: When we teach a person how to drive, we are teaching them to recognize potential hazards. We teach them to not only look at what’s in front of your car, but at least 20 seconds before where you’re traveling, so you can spot potential hazards before you get there.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: What I love the most is helping people. I am a teacher. I like to educate them. I think I’m doing something worthwhile for the community and for their families. I love helping people succeed.
Q: What is the hardest thing for a new pilot to learn?
A: How to manage intersections. To identify what a pedestrian might do, what a driver might do. You’re dealing with a lot of interactions…not just the handling of the vehicle, but also the cognitive part of analyzing what other drivers are doing at the intersection.
Q: What is the easiest maneuver to learn?
A: Just drive on a country road, moving the car straight. Analyze curves and hills. This is usually the first lesson we take.
Q: How would you compare the students you currently have to those you started?
A: It’s a good question. I didn’t see much difference in the students. They all want to do a good job. I’ve never had a student who didn’t want to do a good job. They all want to be safe drivers. What I have seen is a difference in driving conditions.
A: I see more aggressive riders behind me. As soon as the light changes, the horn starts blasting, or someone’s right on my back. And it’s not just when I teach driving. It’s when I drive my usual car.
The other thing I see is these scooters in town. I know they are energy efficient, but people go fast. They do not respect the rules of the road. Instead of going with the flow of traffic, they go against the flow and make quick turns in front of cars at lights. I’ve seen very close calls there.
Q: Cars have changed tremendously over the past 50 years. Has this affected your way of teaching driving?
A: Not at all. Most driving is done with your eyes. You must understand and identify the dangers on the road. Still need to check the blind spots. However, today’s cars are much safer.
Q: Who is the hardest student to teach?
A: The one who arrives and who is very confident. Sometimes they want to go fast around a bend, they want to go fast around a traffic light. They are aggressive. So we have a technique to teach this kind of students. We have to put them in situations where they have to brake because they are driving too much.
We put them in a situation where they’re going to make a mistake using a habit they’ve developed that seems to be working well.
Q: Who is the easiest student to teach?
A: Students who have been out with their parents for maybe six or seven hours. They want to learn to drive. They understand quite quickly and they work with their parents after the lesson.
Q: How old was the oldest person you taught to drive?
A: I would say someone in their late sixties. What happens is that some of them live in a rural community, their spouse is deceased and there is a car in the driveway and they have to move.
Q: Are adults harder to teach than teenagers, or is it the other way around?
A: Adults are harder to teach than teenagers. They have developed habits along the way. They don’t follow instruction quickly. We have to review things. Where I take a teenager and I explain things once or twice, with an adult it takes a lot of re-education.
They’re a little more scared with everything that’s going on there. There’s a lot of information going through that windshield and they’re not used to processing it. Teenagers pick this up quickly, but older adults take longer to deal with it.
Adults take their time. They are in no hurry. They want to do things right. They don’t take risks. They just want to go to church, to the pharmacy, to a friend’s house.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to become a driving instructor?
A: You want to get into this business for one reason and that’s to save people’s lives. I tell the instructors here right off the bat. If you’re here just to make money, I understand that and it’s important and you need to do that, but you also need to have a desire to help people drive safely.
Otherwise, don’t go into this business. It’s too dangerous and you will have a negative effect on people’s lives.