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The Wheel Life of Driver's Ed Teacher Stanley Blicharz

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Stanley Blicharz - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Stanley Blicharz

Name: Stanley Blicharz
Job: Driver's education teacher
Town: Rutland

Stanley Blicharz spent decades as an elementary school jack-of-all-trades, including working as an assistant principal, a guidance counselor and a sports coach. During summers, he painted houses.

"Then, about the time I turned 50, my wife said, 'Find another summer job,'" he recalled.

But Blicharz's career course correction actually was driven by a conversation he overheard while coaching baseball one day. His players were teasing a teammate, a senior at Mill River High School, for getting two speeding tickets in one day. Blicharz was stunned by how nonchalant the boy seemed.

"So I thought, Jeepers! This is something I could really get into, teaching driver's ed," Blicharz explained during an interview last month.

In 20 years since becoming a driver's education instructor — he currently teaches at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester but has also taught at West Rutland School and Rutland High School — the 71-year-old Rutland native estimates that he's taught more than 1,000 people how to drive. In 2019, he was recognized as a national teacher of excellence by the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association.

Though much has changed in the automotive world since Blicharz took driver's ed himself in 1964, he emphasized that most of the fundamentals remain the same: Drive defensively, wear your seat belt and don't get distracted behind the wheel.

"That's difficult for all of us, even as adults," he said. "When I'm in the classroom, I try to encourage two things: Don't have any crashes, and don't get any speeding tickets."

Blicharz calls them "crashes," not "accidents." Stubbing one's toe is an accident, he said. Wrecking one's car — or, worse, injuring another driver — is the consequence of poor decision making. His primary mission is to prevent either from occurring.

SEVEN DAYS: Are there regionally specific skills you teach in Vermont?

STANLEY BLICHARZ: Yes. I try to focus a lot on rural driving — curves and narrow roads — because that's what they're mainly going to be doing. I don't spend a whole lot of time on the expressway, because we don't have four lanes, and generally you're just driving in a straight line.

I focus on their maneuverability. We teach them to parallel park on our third drive. And we practice that every time we go after that, so that they can learn that skill immediately.

SD: Do the new safety systems in vehicles, such as backup cameras and lane-departure warnings, create a false sense of security?

SB: Yes. My fear is that the new generation [of drivers] will not take responsibility for their actions. They are the ultimate driver, not their cars. And so they still need to be aware that they're responsible for themselves, their passengers and other users of the highway.

SD: Has the popularity of large trucks and SUVs changed young people's driving habits?

SB: Well, the young men today prefer to have a truck in order to sit up higher. And, of course, they think they're invincible in that vehicle because of its size and power. It can be a negative, especially for those boys who like to push the envelope.

SD: Have you noticed that many young people aren't in a rush to get their license?

SB: It's true. I'm finding this every year. There are some students who couldn't care less and don't mind waiting. Of course, their parents love it because they feel that these kids will be a little more mature and get their license when they feel comfortable about doing it. I really cringe when I see parents pushing their kid to get their permit, and then their license, because they want the kids to drive themselves to school. Very often they're not ready, and they're smart enough to realize that.

SD: How do you address the issue of cellphones and distracted driving?

SB: Because [students] need six hours of observation [time riding] in the back seat, I require all cellphones to be in the front console during our two hours of drive time. I have them fill out an observation sheet so that they're checking off things they're seeing [on the road], because they need to understand that the road demands their full attention.

SD: Had any dangerous incidents?

SB: We've had some scary moments, but I try to remain as calm as I can be. I've had students, when we've had close calls, just stop the vehicle and start to cry. I had one student drive right through a stoplight and go through four lanes of traffic. Thank God nobody hit us. We pulled over to the side, and he was all shaken up, so we switched drivers. There are at least two or three a year that are pretty scary.

SD: Any wrecks?

SB: We've had two crashes in 20 years. Not bad. One student was a football player who panicked and couldn't find the brake in the middle of Rutland, and we crashed into the bumper of a double-parked vehicle. And then, a couple of years ago, a young lady was practicing backing up in a straight line. The vehicle started to drift a little bit, and she panicked. By the time I realized she wasn't in control, we'd sideswiped a car in a church parking lot. The lady who owned the vehicle was gracious, but the girl was as upset as can be.

SD: What's the best part of your job?

SB: Oh, when the students call me. "Mr. B! I got my license, and I only had two points taken off my test!" I love the joy they express when they call and now have this independence to drive on their own.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Wheel Life"