123 Drive! training academy has a fleet of eight cars and is located in Bluffton Village. KEVIN AYLMER

Teenagers have already been especially challenged during the coronavirus pandemic socially, mentally and academically. Add “learning to drive” as another aspect of their growth that has been stunted.

Bluffton teens and parents will tell you there was already a shortage of Lowcountry class space and instructors pre-COVID. Between business shutdowns and restrictions on class size during the pandemic, a trying situation became nearly untenable.

But there is relief on the horizon – both in a tapered return to normalcy from the area’s established driving academy and news of a new school opening up to service the Lowcountry’s population explosion.

Doreen Haughton-James started 123 Driving Academy 15 years ago when she found there to be a lack of quality driver education options for her kids. Now, as a pair of competitors retired and high schools cut back on offering in-school drivers’ ed, she has had to navigate the pandemic knowing less kids will be able to learn to drive in a timely manner.

“We had to close in April 2020 for a month and that alone created a backlog of students. We moved classes online and that helped, but our in-person classes were cut in half,” said the owner of the school with classes in Bluffton and Hilton Head Island. Island classes shrunk from 40 to 20 while Bluffton classes contracted from 30 to 15 in-person spots.

The Department of Motor Vehicles allowed the school to go virtual with their Saturday 8-hour classes with strict supervision to make sure students were watching and following the class instruction.

“It helped for sure, but right now, our classes are full through the end of June into July,” Haughton-James said. “As the numbers get better, we’re slowly getting classroom seats back and we’ll offer them to waitlisted students to try to get them into class sooner.”

Students with their beginners permit that completed the class and want to begin in-car driving instruction must currently wait up to a month to get started.

“Between the masks in class and wearing masks and creating partial partitions in the cars to prevent any transmission of the virus, there were a lot of inconveniences and delays, but we’re slowly getting back on schedule,” she said.

The business is also trying to adjust to added demand beyond the delays caused by COVID.

“We just added a car, our eighth, and we’re always advertising for quality teacher to add to our staff of 10 instructors,” Haughton-James said. The school is also looking into added a third location in Ridgeland to service the growing population along the S.C. 170 corridor. “Finding the right instructors are key. We have former teachers, UPS drivers, instructors with masters in education, all types. But the key is to be personable and show they’re comfortable teaching teens.”

The 123 owner has seen a population growth since beginning the business and said that increased traffic and more scrutiny of their performance have been the biggest changes over her tenure.

As for what parents can do to help their kids navigate the learning process and the potential delays in getting to learn in the field, Haughton-James said nothing beats the basics.

“Find an empty parking lot, get your kids as many reps and hours behind the wheel as you can,” she said. “There is no substitute for experience and comfort in operating the vehicle.”

A new option with a twist

David Murphy served a decade in local law enforcement – eight with the Beaufort County Sheriffs Office and two as a Bluffton police officer. During that time, he was part of countless traffic accident investigations.

It gave him a unique and often gruesome insight into the results of poor or distracted driving. When he, his wife Carrie and his father (a former sheriff deputy and current owner of New River Transmission in Hardeeville) were looking to start a business, his experience with accident collisions combined with his knowledge of the population growth and lack of drivers ed options led his family to buy a franchise with the 911 Driving School.

The chain, a subsidiary of the Seattle-based Driver Training Group, has seven offices across South Carolina and 50 across the country, with more franchises coming online every month.

The differentiating factor that Murphy said will make 911 stand out: all instructors are current or retired first responders or law enforcement officers.

“Officers can relate to the teaching on a different level. We’re out there driving 12 hours a day, we see the barrage of distracted driving first hand and have a unique insight into proper defensive driving,” Murphy said. “Driving is one of the most underestimated tasks we do. Repetition of doing it creates complacency and lazy habits. A Ford F-150 with a distracted or texting driver is essentially a 3,000-pound missile.”

The school’s first class began May 1 with eight-hour classes scheduled for each Saturday through mid-September. The school will offer in-person classes at their Plantation Park classroom and office. The school’s cost run from $400 to $600, $75 to $200 higher than 123 Drive’s class rates. Murphy said the professionalism and experience that instruction from law enforcement officers will give beginning students a leg up in their learning.

“We have seen the 911 teaching blueprint, it’s proven and successful and we’re excited to bring that to this area,” Murphy said. He said that in addition to himself, he has two current local police officers signed up to teach classes and do in-car instruction and will hire more instructors as demand warrants.

“And we are already seeing that demand. We’re built to serve the growth in the need for drivers ed, and to service that need with the highest quality instruction possible,” he said. “We have a very fertile pool of current and retired officers to recruit instructors from.”

Sign up for classes online at 123drivingacademy.com or 911drivingschool.com.

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.