The driving force behind my AAA behind-the-wheel lessons: safety

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Image used with permission from Jennifer Li.

Before her Sept. 15 AAA driving lesson, senior Hope Li (left) dons a face mask as her instructor, Daniel Pedraza, takes her temperature in front of the AAA student driver car. Li has been taking lessons since July, following coronavirus precautions like wearing gloves in the car and sitting on a plastic seat cover.

Hope Li

Careful not to breathe on the gloved hand pointing the gun at my forehead, I search for a point behind his head — anything but an awkward eye-to-eye stare.

I stand still as my pleated cloth mask presses against my nose and mouth with every anxious inhale.

Beep.

“You’re good,” says Daniel Pedraza, my driving instructor who also wears a mask, putting down the lavender infrared temperature gun.

My mask pushes out slightly as I exhale, relieved.

My first driving lesson with AAA on July 8 marked the first time I had ever commanded a car by myself (besides my teacher’s brake on the passenger’s side).

I’m a 16-year-old Sunny Hills senior. I had never taken a driving lesson before, so I didn’t know what a normal class would look like — “normal” as in pre-COVID-19.

So when my mom first drove me to the parking lot between the Carl’s Jr. and AAA office building in Tustin, I walked into my first lesson blind, (don’t worry, Mom, I wore my contacts) without any expectations for my instructor or the lesson itself.

In a Ford Fusion dressed in bright AAA red, blue and yellow decals, my instructor pulled up. After checking my temperature, he looked through my permit and told my mom when the lesson would be over.

Then, occasionally looking at his clipboard, he asked me three questions confirming I hadn’t contracted COVID-19, been in contact with any coronavirus patients or experienced any flu-like symptoms.

Even though Pedraza didn’t specifically tell me to do so, I tucked my phone away in my pocket and turned on Silent Mode and Do Not Disturb just in case something came through accidentally.

After I put on the pair of translucent, non-latex, powder free gloves he gave me, I completed a “walk around” of the car to look for objects or animals that might be near the wheels or under the vehicle. Then, my instructor popped the hood of the Ford hybrid to show me where the windshield solution, coolant, engine and battery were located in case I needed to troubleshoot in future emergencies.

I had learned the same names as I studied for my written test last year through the AAA online driver’s education course, but since then, I had shifted my focus from the inner workings of the car to driving it myself, so I definitely needed a refresher.

When he asked if I had any questions about the mechanics, I was about to say “No” before I noticed he didn’t go over the objects on the right side — I’m a student journalist, after all.

He explained that he normally doesn’t go over that side since the car is a hybrid, but it was just a battery.

Silently exuding pride at my one and only question, I started to stand a bit straighter — until he told me to sit in the front seat.

When he asked me for the names of all the buttons inside, I fumbled a bit, and he eventually told me the answers. I couldn’t tell from looking at his face behind his surgical mask he wore if he was smiling, but it looked like it from his eyes, at least.

After adjusting the mirrors and chair to my height and sight of vision, I buckled up, and he joined me in the car, putting on a face shield.

A thin, plastic disposable seat cover rested on the headrest and continued on to the bottom of both his and my seats. If I had worn shorts, the covering would have stuck uncomfortably to my legs. Thank God for leggings. I was required to wear closed-toed shoes, though, or else the lesson would be canceled, and it would be one of three possible strikes against me.

He introduced some safety measures like what to do if he has to take over (cross my arms over my chest and let him steer) and the motions he’ll be making to guide the car along (pressing the brake on his side of the car and using three fingers to gently help me steer).

As I turned and backed out of the parking spot, I drove too close to the bushes behind us.

“Where were you looking?” he asked.

“At the bushes,” I said with an embarrassed smile. Great job, Hope, I thought. He can’t even see your mouth.

I couldn’t tell from looking at his face behind his surgical mask he wore if he was smiling, but it looked like it from his eyes”

— Hope Li

“Visualize where you want to go, then you’ll get there,” he said. (I’m paraphrasing now; I wasn’t recording the entire dialogue in the car.)

As I signaled and turned within the parking lot, I drove too close to the curb on the right side.

“Visualize,” he said.

As I looked left and right for cars driving across the parking lot, I drove a little too close to the perpendicular lane they came from.

“Visualize.”

OK, OK. I got this, I thought. No sweat.

Yeah, right, no sweat.

I gripped the wheel as the perspiration on my hands clouded my gloves and perfectly exemplified the water cycle despite the car’s running air-conditioning and open windows. My eyes uneasily flickered from the road to the speedometer relaying my current speed: less than 20 miles per hour.

When we finally pulled into the same parking spot we started at, I breathed a sigh of relief — not too big; I didn’t want my respiratory particles contaminating the car.

With the lesson done, my mom walked over as my instructor wrote his observations on a handy dandy progress report he later put in a take-home folder. After scheduling our next lesson, my mom and I walked back to the car as I peeled off my gloves. In her car, I pulled off my mask and took a full breath. Meanwhile, my instructor took off the plastic seat covers and disinfected the car’s interior with supplies from the trunk to get ready for his next victim, I mean, student driver.

Since that first July lesson, I’ve had two other ones following the same protocol with the mask, gloves, face shield (for my instructor), seat covers and air-conditioning and window combination situation and six to eight hours of practice time with my parents.

So far, I’ve gotten 40 hours of practice with my parents (I’ve gotten better at relaxing my hands on the wheel) and over 20 questions like, “If I back out with my head facing forward, will I immediately fail the test?” my former journalist father told me to write on my phone to ask the instructor.

(Pedraza’s answer: “Of course; why would you back out with your head facing forward?”)

I breathed a sigh of relief — not too big; I didn’t want my respiratory particles contaminating the car.”

— Hope Li

Even though the precautions AAA regulated seemed like a hassle, they were mere inconveniences in exchange for keeping all parties safe as I received driving instruction hours to get my license before my permit expires this coming November.

It’s a race against time to see if I can complete the required six hours, but hopefully I’ll pass the test on my first try — unlike my experience with the written test to receive my permit.

It’s all credited to my hours playing the inexperienced chauffeur with my parents and Pedraza’s patient instruction that I know I’ll pass the test — more importantly, I can visualize it.