‘Expenses can be outrageous:’ Why driver education can be hard to find the UP

Like much of the country, Upper Michigan is seeing a dwindling number of driver education instructors.
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 7:30 PM EDT
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UPPER MICHIGAN (WLUC) - Like much of the country, Upper Michigan is seeing a dwindling number of driver education instructors.

This is leading some parents to question where their kids will learn to drive.

For a student to pass driver education and get their license, Michigan law requires them to pass at least 24 hours of in-class instruction, six hours of on-road driving, four hours of observed driving and a driver test.

According to Robin Bordner, the owner of Michigan Traffic Safety, high start-up costs and retiring instructors seem to be the two main reasons parents are having a tough time their kids into these classes.

“Expenses of starting a driving school can be outrageous,” Bordner said, adding that, “people are retiring, I mean that’s been a big factor in the U.P.”

Before an instructor can get certified to teach, Bordner said the State of Michigan requires driver education instructors to take three different college-level training courses. These courses are each spread over three consecutive weekends.

“Then there is student teaching, which has to be at least three weeks or more after the instructor gets done with the core training classes,” Bordner explained.

When including the required student teaching, instructors have to take four total classes, spread across at least 12 weeks, before they can be certified by the state.

Bordner said all this coursework stops many instructors in the U.P. from even starting the process of getting certified. Bordner added that this shortage is evident in her newest training course in Gogebic County.

“We ended up with three people,” Bordner said. “We planned a couple from Bessemer, Wakefield and Ironwood. The two candidates from Ironwood didn’t come through.”

Ishpeming Public Schools is one of many districts in Upper Michigan struggling with a lack of instructors. Superintendent Carrie Meyer said current Driver Education Instructor Erling Langness is set to step down from teaching driving classes after nearly 30 years in the position.

Meyer added that there is no replacement in sight for a new driver education instructor.

“I don’t foresee us filling the position,” Meyer noted. “I have been talking with our principal about sending out notices to families to start finding other ways to prepare for driver education. They may need to go to a contracted company. I know that there are a couple in Marquette.”

For Abbey Road Driving School in Menominee County, Office Manager Macy Berszyini-Kienitz said their biggest issue is not a lack of instructors, it’s the high operating costs. She explained that the last time Abbey Road serviced the tires, suspension and brakes on its student driver car, it cost close to $24,000.

“Car insurance, gas, bonding, all of those things really add up as time goes on throughout the year,” Berszyini-Kienitz said.

Berszyini-Kienitz added that “there are also always requirements from the state like fingerprinting and background checks that we have to go through.”

Combine these costs with the cost of a school office building and books, which Berszyini-Kienitz said are up to $5 per student and more, it can become overwhelming. While costs are high now, Robin Bordner said that from 1956 to 1999, Michigan driver education schools did receive some state funding from driver’s license fees.

“When you and I got a driver’s license, legislatively there was a $3 to $4 fee that went into the driver education fund,” Bordner explained.

This effectively ended when the state legislature decided to privatize driver education in 1999. This has left schools to front the cost themselves ever since.

Some schools like Abbey Road are still able to operate despite these high costs. Meanwhile, others can’t even get started. Bordner said the start-up costs are the highest and that the costs slowly decrease over time.

As for instructors, Bordner added she is always willing to train them so they can teach the next generation of drivers.

Click here to read part two of this series on the driver education shortage in Upper Michigan.