Posted on August 4, 2014

Perils of City Driver’s Ed: Pigeons, Taxis and Litigious Pedestrians

Matt Flegenheimer, New York Times, August 1, 2014

The New York State driving test awards no extra credit for overcoming the curbside taunts of East Harlem teenagers.

The official driver’s manual offers little advice on the midblock pedestrian with what appears to be a handgun in his back pocket.

And no road signs carry the admonishment delivered from the front seat on East 106th Street on a recent afternoon.

“Wait for the charro to go through,” Leoni Pimentel, the owner of Akademia Driving School, on Lexington Avenue, told his student. A man in full cowboy regalia stared them down from the crosswalk.

For Akademia, summer is the busy season, when young adults, many off from college, decide it is finally time to get their driver’s licenses. But in East Harlem, there is no suburban parking-lot obstacle course, no sleepy cul-de-sac on which to practice three-point turns. New clients, some clutching the wheel for the first time, must blend immediately into traffic–wincing through major corridors like East 125th Street; negotiating narrow passages made narrower by double-parked cars; avoiding the cyclist on the right, the vendor on the left, the dog camped midlane because his owner is neither muscular nor aware enough to drag it any farther.

Though the state requirement for “supervised driving practice” before taking a road test applies only to those under 18–and certainly does not demand experience in Manhattan–many older students view the lessons as an essential education.


At times, even the “Student Driver” sign atop the roof, the roadway equivalent of a “kick-me” sign, inspires support.

“Good luck on the test, man!” a boy, perhaps 10, shouted at Gabriel Uy, 19, on Lexington Avenue. “You can pass!”

But the novice driver, like a Little League outfielder praying that the ball is never hit his way, cannot hide for long. New York intervenes.

It found one student on 116th Street and Third Avenue, where an attempted turn into oncoming traffic prompted Santiago Reyes, an instructor training under Mr. Pimentel, to slam on the special brake at his feet.


On a recent afternoon, the city’s traffic powers seemed to collude against Mr. Siri, the Marymount Manhattan student, all at once along little-known Paladino Avenue, beside the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.

An M116 bus bedeviled him first, drawing near as Mr. Siri prepared to parallel park. Next, an ice cream truck sidled up briefly, pumping its jingle while Mr. Siri backed into a space. Then came the boy on the skateboard, and his friends with water balloons holstered in their palms.

“Look for an open window!” one shouted, as they raced toward the highway. They fired at a van before scattering.

Mr. Siri tried to exit by making a broken U-turn that left him straddling the yellow roadway lines in time to delay another M116. He pulled away and took a long sip of water.

“Let’s make believe like that never happened,” Mr. Reyes said.

Since Akademia opened in 2008, its instructors seem to have assembled an unofficial set of guidelines tailored to Manhattan’s unforgiving streets.

Beware “Zombieland,” around the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, which is known to attract drug addicts who make for erratic walkers.


And avoid, at all costs, the potentially litigious pedestrians who “just to try to get hit, especially if you’re not going that fast,” as Mr. Reyes told Ms. Morales after a near accident.


Mr. Pimentel, 33, said students would “crash every half-hour” without his extra brake. The jeers of neighbors do not help.

“Press the brakes!” one heckler shouted recently, despite the student’s obstruction-free path.

“Go! Go! Go!” yelled another, adding an expletive.

“People have no empathy,” Mr. Pimentel said. “I guess they have a dark sense of humor.”