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.”



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  • none of your business

    Sharpton and Deblackio will sue the Times for daring to tell the truth about driving in black neighborhoods. Racist, racist NYSlimes.

  • dd121

    Just why is it Leoni is conducting driving classes in that neighborhood?

  • JackKrak

    This has just given me an idea for a drinking game called “Soweto, Lagos or America?”

  • What, no squeegy men? I expect those to make a big comeback in New York with the oil driller now ensconced as mayor.

    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.

    That’s what I think the Steve Utash case in Detroit was about. The “adults” deliberately had that kid run in the middle of the street to play the ghetto lottery against the driver’s insurance carrier.

    • Oil Can Harry

      Instead of squeegee men (made extinct by Rudy Giuliani) we now have:

      1. blacks and hispanics who hawk bottled water to drivers waiting at red lights. I have no problem with them.

      2. blacks and hispanics who dress in superhero and muppet costumes and try to shake down white tourists for money. Bill de Bozo is threatening to crack down on these jerks,

      • I read about those superhero dweebs. Some of them in some cities are what they call “creative activists,” and are anti-crime vigilantes of sorts. But most of them are how you describe, con artists. And in either case, you have to wonder about the maturity level of grown men who dress up in comic book costumes. Of course, since these are blacks and Hispanics, that question answers itself.

  • Lewis33

    Mr. Pimentel has more faith than a Asian lady changing lanes on the 405.

  • Who the heck wants a car in New York City? Where does one park it? If I lived in Boulder and commuted to downtown Denver for work, as many people do, I’d take the local RTD buses to the office, and not even mess with a car. My uncle John commuted for 40 years from Long Island into the city to work at a law firm, and he never bothered driving; he always just took a commuter train; my aunt would drop him off and pick him up at the station near their home. Train fair was probably costly, but so are parking permits in NYC.

  • Biff_Maliboo

    Didn’t blacks invent traffic lights?

    Along with everything else, I mean…

  • IstvanIN

    You can make all the laws in the world but if the citizens (more accurately residents) don’t agree on a common social contract, such as not walking in the street, using cross walks, not shooting at passing motor vehicles, etc. the whole shebang simply falls apart.

    • You forgot about not playing the “knockout game”, not abducting young couples, gang-raping, torturing and killing them, not assaulting neighborhood watch members, not committing home-invasions, not driving major grocery chains out of entire areas and then later complaining that these same neighborhoods are “food deserts”, not complaining about “profiling” when police are around and not complaining about “de-policing” when they aren’t… and so-on. AmRen’s site probably doesn’t have enough bandwidth for me to complete the list, but you get the idea.

  • LHathaway

    Where is John Rocker?

    I actually like that guy. What website does he write for now?

    There’s racism in sports, I must say. If you’re white, John Rocker, and say you’re unhappy riding on the subway, You are denounced, and they threaten to kick you off the team and ban you from the sport. If you’re Cassius Clay and you join The Nation of Islam, change your name, say that whites are the mutated spawn of the devil? Burn your draft card and denounce your country, they declare you an international humanitarian. It would appear Rocker’s mistake was not going far enough, or being white.

    • Sloppo

      I used to like to watch the Braves. When they got rid of John, my interest in that team ended. John may not have been the best pitcher on that team, but he was good and by far the most entertaining to watch. Nobody else on the Braves was brave enough to support their teammate when the thought police came after him.

      I’ve seen an article or two by John on World Net Daily.

  • WR_the_realist

    Harlem would be a good place to take those defensive driving courses. You know, the kind where you learn how to do a 180 turn at high speed to get away from terrorists and kidnappers.

  • Matt Turner

    … Mr. Pimentel said, “I guess they have a dark sense of humor. “A ‘dark’ sense of humor”? Shame! Shame!

  • TXCriollo

    Im gonna not drive there, but in reality it is any black area not just Harlem. Dc atlanta parts of dallas houston all of detroit

  • Reported here:

    I’m no clairvoyant. It only seems like I am because I notice things.