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Instructor rolls up the miles teaching driver’s ed

April 5, 2009
By LARRY SHIELDS, Staff Writer

SALEM - Judy Bonfert has been teaching driver education since 1983.

"I got into it by accident," she said. "I was hunting for a job at the time because my kids had grown up and a friend from Wellsville said I should apply for a driver's ed lab aide. She mentioned it two times."

Bonfert, a 1963 Springfield High School (Jefferson County) graduate, applied, received a call for an interview and "learned a little bit about it."

There were 11 candidates and a 40-hour block of classroom and in-car training.

She was selected along with one other full-time and two part-time teachers.

"When I first started I didn't think I wanted to do it. I was given a choice between a simulator or in-car.

"When I did my first student I was hooked," she said.

The driver ed program was run out of the Wellsville School District, which employed her.

"I was teaching in-car five and six days a week and only had a couple of schools, Columbiana, Leetonia, Southern Local and Wellsville."

The Wellsville School District co-opted with John Sawyer.

"I had enough students to keep me busy 25 to 30 hours a week, in all there were about 300 to 400 students the first few years and the four of us were kept busy with the four schools. All we did was in-car, no classroom training.

"In the first couple of years we branched out. We picked up Lisbon and later Salem and a few more years down the road we picked Sebring, South Range and Springfield (Mahoning County), Crestview and East Palestine.

"Today, we have 11 schools, not including East Palestine with five instructors and two relief instructors who fill in when needed."

The AAA took over the program and Al Salyars of Portsmouth has been the general manager since October of 2005.

About 1992 the state of Ohio approved driver's ed teachers with five years of experience to do classroom instruction.

"So, I did classroom in Leetonia, Columbiana and East Palestine. I was real apprehensive about classroom because I had always done one-on-one."

Her continuing education portfolio is filled with certificates for defensive driving instruction by the National Safety Council, distinguished service awards from the Ohio Department of Highway Safety, 1986 Outstanding Driver Ed Instructor, United States Department of Transportation Safety Institute, the 1985-86 Ohio Safety Belt Coalition, the Wellsville Task Force and even one from South Carolina where she participated in the statewide Youth Traffic Safety Conference.

There is also a 1988 Vehicle Dynamics and Control Course she took at the Ohio Transportation Research Center that was funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The course included off-road recovery, skid control, stopping without locking up the brakes and backing up through serpentine orange cones.

"I like doing that," she said, "they made me stop."

She also received a certificate of appreciation from the Ohio Department of Highway Safety for her efforts to help educate the public on the life-saving benefits of wearing safety belts by successfully operating an Ohio Safety Belt Education Center.

She taught classes for the East Liverpool Township Volunteer Fire Department, taking members through an emergency vehicle operator's course.

From 1985 through 1997, Bonfert taught adult remedial driving classes for people who lost their driver's licenses. She also taught juveniles who were referred by then Columbiana County Juvenile Court Judge C. Ashley Pike.

"He sent juveniles to that class with two violations or more," Bonfert said. "Sometimes there were so many we had four-hour classes on Saturday. In 1986, when the seat belt law went into affect we started a program with a film shown to seat belt violators twice a month at the Columbiana County Career Center.

"We didn't like to do that because people weren't happy to be told to wear a seat belt . We did it for about two years. A few came in and thanked us, but others were very defiant. They called us 'Big Brother.' They just didn't like being told to wear seat belts so we pretty much got the brunt of their anger. It was geared to tell them why the law was passed."

Her husband, Jim would assist with the seat belt film and received a state recognition for doing tune-up and maintenance on the cars.

In 2003, she was awarded a certificate from the Ohio Motorists Safety Foundation for completing the Ohio Driver Training School Training Manager Course approved by the Ohio Department of party Safety.

Records from between 1983 and 2008 say she's taught about 6,368 students, that's enough to fill the Salem High School auditorium more than six times.

"I would venture to say not less than 100 to 150 a year ... not including the numbers from 1983."

By another accounting, Bonfert estimates she has driven over 832,000 miles with students. She's leaning a little to the conservative side with that number and adds, "I can't even remember how many cars I've had. After so many miles, we had get new ones.

"Buicks, Chevies, Plymouths and Fords, you name it and I've had all of them. I used to put more miles on a car than anyone because I did so many kids."

She singled out a Plymouth Reliant that just "ran and ran and ran."

In 26 years there have been two minor accidents and two others that she calls "more serious."

One of the "more serious" accidents occurred on Dec. 7, 1998 in a Ford Escort when the student hit a tree and the airbags deployed. The other was a rollover in 2003 on state Route 558 in East Fairfield in the rain. There were no injuries in either accident.

Salem High School Principal Dr. Joe Shivers said, "She just approached it right for both of my kids. She's patient, like a good basketball coach."

Bonfert taught both of Shivers' sons, Joseph and Brian, and Dr. Shivers explained Brian had an episode when he lost the brakes not long ago on North Union Avenue.

"He put it in low, pulled over and didn't hit anybody. It was an unexpected situation and just to have the wherewithal to do that, I think Judy taught him that."

His eldest son, Joseph, drove for local attorney Geoffrey S. Goll when he was Rotary District 6650 Governor in 2007, racking up a lot of mileage behind the wheel.

What's the hardest thing to teach?

"I guess when they first start out and getting them to see everything ... not having tunnel vision. The new drivers tend to not scan enough," she said, "and breaking the bad habits they see others doing."

What does she emphasize?

"Turns, complete stops, scanning and checking the rearview mirrors. We do a running commentary so we know where they're looking."

She explained, "Some kids, a small percentage, they get in and their parents have really worked with them."

Others stay in the parking lot, she said, noting some have to eyeball the pedals to determine which is which.

"That's what's scary," she said, "and then you have kids who haven't even been on a bike."

What about stick shifts, or what years ago were called standard shifts?

Bonfert said, "If the parents want to teach them, it's OK but due to the number of kids I wouldn't have the time. We get into enough situations with the automatics."

And what about cell phones?

Bonfert said, "We go over that, about not getting distracted and text messaging."

She said classroom training includes separating a deck of cards while doing something else - "to show them what happens when you multi-task."

She has also trained other instructors.

"I can't tell you how many I've trained over the years," she said, "the hours are flexible to work this job. That's why a lot of people don't stay."

She added, "You have to enjoy working with kids. It's not a job you'll get rich at but it's rewarding and you meet a lot of nice people ... school superintendents and principals."

Oh, there's one other thing. Paperwork. About four to five hours a week. That's another one of the job aspects where it takes a certain type of person.



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