Muoi Tran was showing distinct signs of improvement in her second encounter with the automobile.
Her first lesson on the residential streets of Monterey Park had ended in failure. The flustered 44-year-old Vietnamese immigrant was unable to drive straight. She clawed at the steering wheel, but her car kept veering toward traffic in the opposite lane and then drifting back in the other direction, inches from cars parked along the curb.
An hour into her second try, with frequent corrections from her teacher, Tran settled into a wobbly approximation of forward motion. It was progress she would have to savor later. For the moment, she grasped the steering wheel with clenched fists, as if the sheer force of her grip could right the car's course.
Husband Unable to Drive
She had lived a full life--growing to adulthood during the Vietnam War, spending months in a Cambodian refugee camp and starting anew in Monterey Park with her husband, Phuoc, and eight children--without once turning an ignition key. That was reserved for her salesman husband until attacks of pain in his arm made it impossible for him to maneuver the family station wagon.
"I think I will like to drive," she said after prematurely slamming on the brakes at a deserted intersection. "But it makes me nervous."
Driving, that deceptively simple feat of coordination and memorization, can pose an awkward adjustment for immigrants. Adults who have never driven must learn a whole new physical universe, prodding strange buttons and pedals while they move on alien terrain. And immigrants accustomed to driving in congested foreign cities sometimes have to shed roadway habits that could violate the law in their new country.
Car a Necessity
Nowhere are the benefits and strains of that transition more visible than in Southern California, where the car is all but essential for work and play. When they are ready to take to the road, immigrants often turn to their own to learn, creating a booming market for ethnic-oriented driving schools.
In Pasadena, Nisham Basmadjian, the founder of Driving Hye (the Armenian word for Armenian) School, admonishes Lebanese students who repeatedly glance up at their rear-view mirrors every few seconds. "In Beirut, you're always worrying who's behind you and what kind of guns they're carrying," he said. "Here, they need a full view of the road."
Jose Vargas, the owner of Condor Driving School in Eagle Rock, tries to get students just in from Mexico City to cut down on their horn use. "They honk all day long," he said. "They have loud air horns that play the first few notes from the 'Godfather Theme' or the march from 'Bridge on the River Kwai.' I have to tell them that in Los Angeles that kind of thing is against the law."
Over time, there is no evidence to suggest that immigrants perform any differently than native-born drivers. But there is a minority whose adjustment to the region's roads, laws and traffic patterns is long and tortured. Their confusion and reliance on old habits have sometimes led to conspicuous traffic disruptions, which have in turn spawned damaging racial stereotypes linking some ethnic groups with poor driving habits.
Police departments in several communities are responding by trying novel driver awareness programs to reach their immigrant populations. Though the programs are still in their infancy, they appear to be having some salutary impact.
'Freedom and Privilege'
"There are two musts for any immigrant who comes to California--learning English and learning how to drive," said Young Moon Kim, who capitalized on his own troubles passing the state's driving test 18 years ago to build a successful driving school catering to Los Angeles' Korean community. "A car means freedom and privilege. Until we can drive properly, we feel as if we don't fit in."
It is a message that immigrants hear within days of their arrival. In many immigration service centers, where newcomers line up for information on jobs and housing, counselors emphasize that ownership of a car can be crucial to success in new careers.
Chinese immigrants who come to the Chinatown Service Center are handed maps and schedules for the city's bus system, then urged to buy cars as soon as they have the money.
'Need to Get a Car'
"They come from cities that have excellent public transportation to a place where it is hard to catch a bus," said Johnson Ng, director of the center's orientation program. "We tell them that if they want a better job and the chance to advance themselves, they need to get a car."
Because state Department of Motor Vehicles analysts, insurance companies and social scientists are reluctant to break down motorist information along ethnic lines, there have been no attempts to focus statistically on the numbers of immigrants among Los Angeles county's 5.2 million drivers or their driving habits.
"There are serious concerns about how those kinds of figures might be used," said Bill Gengler, a DMV spokesman.