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Driving Schools Prepared for Traffic Jams in 2004

California's new license law is expected to bring a rush of business to companies that specialize in training immigrants.

September 16, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Driving schools that cater to immigrants are bracing for a rush of business Jan. 1, when California's new law allowing illegal immigrants to apply for a driver's license takes effect.

Already they are fielding calls about the law and its requirements.

"Usually, we get a call every other hour. Now, it's ringing and ringing," said Ricardo Aguirre at the GNC Driving School in Santa Ana. "We don't have all the information to give them, but we try."

Among those eagerly waiting is Marcela Morales, a 32-year-old mother who said she hopes to take lessons once the bill goes into effect. "It would really change my whole life because now, everything is difficult, everything is hard," said Morales, who is an illegal immigrant.

Under current law, a Social Security number -- available only to legal residents -- is necessary to apply for a driver's license. Under the new law, Morales can obtain a federal taxpayer identification number or "other identifier or number that is deemed appropriate" by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A decade-old DMV study estimated there are 1 million unlicensed drivers in California, but department spokesman Bill Branch said the agency has no idea how many are undocumented immigrants.

"Nobody knows the answer to that question. I guess we'll find out Jan. 2," he said, referring to the day when undocumented immigrants can begin applying for California driver's licenses.

Branch also cautioned that the study was done before a change in the law that made it more difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain a driver's license.

"The requirement that applicants have a Social Security number caused a lot of undocumented immigrants to drop out of the system. The DMV can't count people who don't come to us," Branch said.

The DMV also has no hard numbers to suggest how many accidents are caused by illegal immigrants driving without licenses. A 2000 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that 22% of California drivers involved in fatal crashes had invalid licenses or none at all. Nationally, the rate was 14%, the study concluded.

Even without California's new driver-license law, many driving schools in Southern California have for years done a thriving business catering to immigrants -- particularly women who may have grown up thinking it was a man's job to drive.

Instructors say much of their work with such students goes beyond the mechanics and the rules of the road; it's a matter of instilling confidence and counteracting fears of the road built up after years of boarding buses.

And many of the women have had bad experiences learning driving techniques from their husbands.

"Most of our students are women, and most of them have had a fight with their husband when they try to teach them to drive," said Jose Gonzalez, owner of Gonzalez Driving School in Compton. "The women tend to be a little nervous."

At Dan Driving School in Santa Ana, Alex Catalan says the key is assuring the students, also mostly women, that they are capable.

"American teenagers have some familiarity with driving. Adults often say, 'I'm nervous.' They think they can't drive. You have to give them confidence," Catalan said.

Among the students at Catalan's school is Alida Barrera, who has dreamed of being able to drive a car ever since she came to the United States. For those 15 years, she could only imagine buying groceries without taking a bus or taking her children to a city park without pushing a stroller for miles.

Barrera, a native of Guatemala and a mother of two who is a legal resident of the United States, said she didn't try to learn until she obtained a Social Security number in June. Then she begged her husband to teach her.

"All he did was yell. He has no patience with me," said Barrera, who sought help from Dan Driving School, which offered four classes for $240. The instructor "has tremendous patience and has made me believe I will be able to drive."

While teaching Barrera in a car equipped with passenger-side brake and gas pedals, Catalan encouraged Barrera as she cautiously drove on a twisting neighborhood street.

"Sigale, sigale," he said, indicating in Spanish that she should continue. "Good, vamos," he added, as they reached a major thoroughfare.

For all their hopes of increased business with the new driver's license law next year, Aguirre and other driving school operators said they are concerned that the DMV will not have the ability to handle the influx of applicants.

"How we will deal with this is a major question that we will have to resolve between now and Jan. 1," Branch said. "Obviously it will cause a significant increase in the number of customers at DMV."

Many immigrants wonder whether the law will really go into effect. Backers of a new referendum drive to overturn the law say it threatens security and undermines existing immigration laws. The group wants to collect the required 373,816 signatures to place the issue on the March 2004 ballot.

Javier Vasquez, owner of driving school Escuela de Manejo in Wilmington, said he has received many calls since the bill was signed.

"People are excited, but they know there's the possibility of a new governor and the opposition to it," he said. "That makes them afraid. So many people have waited for years for this, and they wonder if it's too good to be true."

*

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.

If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California, write to Behind the Wheel c/o Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to

behindthewheel@latimes.com.

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