Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Defensive Driving

By Phil Campbell

MAY 26, 1998:  The guy who usually does this just kind of slides in at the last minute,” one of the clerks says, before disappearing behind a door. It is 9 a.m. exactly, and I and two other people sit on two benches in the hallway of the Singleton Community Center in Bartlett, waiting for the instructor to arrive. The center from which the simply titled “Driving School” company teaches mandatory defensive-driving classes is not the closest place around, but The Driving School is one of the cheapest in the county, and it doesn’t require participants to fill out tedious forms before arriving.

That doesn’t make waiting any easier. A man with sparkling wingtips and a Mazda insignia on his red sweater gets up and paces, then goes off to shoot pool. A thin man from Germantown leans back on his seat. I fight off sleep.

After about 10 minutes, instructor Perry Bond arrives, and we are ushered into a pink ballet room. We sit on hard metal chairs, facing Bond and four huge mirrors that remind us how tired or bored we are, and to show us, via a reflection of several large windows, how bright and warm it’s getting outside.

Nobody takes off their jacket. It’s a subconscious decision intended to make Bond talk faster.

Bond starts the defensive-driving class by telling us that we are not in a traditional defensive-driving school class. “A lot of people think driving school is when they were 15, 16 years old. I don’t have to tell people where a stop sign is and what to do.”

“I consider the second half [of the lesson] the most important,” he says, without fully explaining why, though he mentions that it has something to do with our personal safety.

“When we come back, we’ll talk about feeling safer,” Bond says. “You can get a permit to carry a firearm in your vehicle in the state of Tennessee.”

Attending a defensive driving class is, after jury duty, perhaps the most detested civic responsibility in America. It’s a duty because almost everybody gets a ticket at least once or twice in his life, and, this being America, almost everybody tries to avoid having that ticket appear on his record. Higher insurance rates notwithstanding, it’s a question of pride to be able to say that you have a clean driving record, even if it’s only clean in the legal sense, and even if it requires you to spend your weekend listening to someone drone on about parts of the car you may have forgotten about (e.g., signals, brakes) and watching a safety video designed to scare you into using public transportation.

If you get a ticket in Memphis and you want to contest it, sometimes the judge or city prosecutor will let you off the hook if you sit through one of these four-hour classes. You are handed a few driving-school brochures as you exit the courtroom. Feel free to pick the school with the most convenient hours and location, but you must return with an official certificate of completion by your next court date.

City Judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse sums up the system’s take on these schools: “[It should] truly be an educational process on what happens with speed and hazards on the road and weather conditions.” The course should focus on the areas in which people make the most mistakes as drivers, she says.

Illustration by Roger Clayton

The Bartlett-based Driving School is one of the schools that city prosecutors (but not city judges) endorse. Bond, however, doesn’t teach the class the way the traffic-court judicial system might prefer. Throughout the class, his tone and stated beliefs suggest that our only hope of survival on the streets of Memphis is if we each take this course and have a Glock – preferably with the safety off – in our glove compartments by early next week.

Bond sits in a director’s chair as he articulates, gestures, and makes sweeping motions at the sky. He wears blue and red sweats and sports two thin gold necklaces, a dark mustache, and a head of closely cropped but otherwise thinning hair. Bond used to be a FedEx employee, but now works at a credit union. Max Maxwell, the owner of The Driving School, has an account at Bond’s credit union. Maxwell made Bond one of his defensive-driving instructors when he learned that Bond formerly taught accounting at Shelby State Community College.

Bond started teaching defensive driving last year, after Maxwell made sure Bond had a clean criminal – and driving – record. “I consider it a blessing that I’ve never been in an accident,” he says.

For the first section of the class, the instructor leads a free-wheeling monologue about police officers and their habits, about trucks and how dangerous they can be, and about how everyone should probably get a radar detector to avoid getting caught speeding.

“It is probably one of the least expensive things you can do, and it can save you a hell of a lot of money,” he says, emphasizing damnation. “It will, if nothing else, keep you on your toes. If mine [radar detector] goes off, I don’t ever ask if it’s a false signal. I just slow down.”

Bond does give a few statistics for us to chew on. Namely, the top three reasons for automobile accidents in Wisconsin in 1996 were, in this order: fatigue, daydreaming, and the use of cellular phones. He also notes that 79 percent of the people killed in truck-related accidents were not in the truck but the other vehicle.

For the most part, however, Bond’s lecturing borders on conversations he seems to have with himself. “I know some people who can still turn down a six-pack and be all right. I know some people who can’t handle one can [of beer]. It’s sad that a lot of people are going to die until late summer on Highway 61. I don’t understand why people rush back [from the Tunica casinos] so quick.”

In a short while, we take a break, and everyone heads for the vending machines. The classroom has grown to six bored people now. After 10 minutes, we reassemble in the pink ballet room (with the exception of one man, a self-proclaimed martial-arts expert, who initially wandered in late and who now has somehow gotten lost in the tiny center).

Bond begins the second session by giving us the phone number for Rangemaster, a gun range that conducts training seminars on handgun use. He tells us that we can get a 10 to 15 percent discount on basic handgun training if we take our official defensive-driving certificate of completion to Rangemaster. Once we finish the handgun course, we can get a permit to own a handgun in Shelby County.

“The Driving School is neither for nor against [Rangemaster],” Bond intones. “We were just asked as a company to say that there is a company that will teach you how to have a gun the right way.

“The common criminal has nothing to do but sit around all day and think of what he wants to do next,” Bond asserts. “Most of the carjackings that occur you don’t hear about.”

Then he proceeds to discuss the most horrific examples of car-related crime in Memphis and Shelby County.

“1996. Oak Court Mall. Lights. Nice security. Nice mall. And a woman is found dead in her car after two days,” he said. “1997. A woman is raped in the Saint Francis [hospital] parking lot. And the only purpose those [security] cameras served was to get an idea of the kind of van the rapist was driving.”

The students are silent through most of this. They fidget a lot and occasionally stare at themselves in the giant wall mirrors. They are perfect studies in the art of inexpression.

“I don’t care what you’re driving out there. Your life is more valuable than anything out there, Lexus or Mercedes,” Bond says, putting things into perspective for a moment.

“But, then again, you got people who will do anything for their car.”

One of the students, a man wearing a University of Michigan baseball hat and a leather jacket, has an example. His dad had been in Orange Mound when somebody tried to take his car from him. “He’s crippled for life because he held onto that car,” the man says. “Crippled for life to save that car.”

Bond nods in understanding, and brings up another example. Some time ago, there was a carjacking at South Parkway and Elvis Presley Boulevard. “A lady got out of her gold Acura. From out of nowhere, somebody shows up to take her car. She put up some slight resistance and lost her life, literally.” He summarizes this point by saying, “It’s safe to say, he [the carjacker] didn’t have a permit to have those guns.” How things would have been different for the Acura owner had the murderer taken the time to register his handgun is not clear.

“The reason I’m telling you this,” he says, sounding frustrated, “ ... again, there’s a growing interest in this,” he says. “Ladies,” he says, looking at the woman present, a twentysomething African American sitting in the corner. “If you go out and buy a gun, please buy a gun you can handle.”

Another of his many examples: “You drive up [into the gas station] in your Blazer or Suburban. There’s always one person hanging around the pay phone.

“Carjackings are being staged this way. He watches you leave. He calls his buddy. Somebody comes up and bumps your vehicle from behind. You get out and three or four folks just show up at your doorway.”

“Call the police,” the Mazda employee suggests.

“Yeah, but MPD has priority calling,” he admonishes. “If there was no bodily harm, or whatever, you’re down on the list.”

Then Bond gives the “downside” of having a handgun. One time he was at a stoplight in Atlanta when a homeless guy wanted to clean his windshield. “The worst thing is, [let’s say that] I’m drunk. I’m mad. And I blow him away.”

He throws up his arms. “Who’s going to jail? I am.

“When you roll your window down, you don’t know who’s legitimate and who’s not. If the mugger wasn’t armed, that’s your word against a dead man’s word.” Somehow, the homeless guy is now a mugger, and Bond is a pissed-off drunk guy with a loaded handgun.

None of the students says anything. Ten minutes later, the class is dismissed. It’s shortly after noon. The students shell out their 15 bucks, grab a certificate of completion, and head back to their homes, which are scattered across Shelby County.

Max Maxwell, the owner of The Driving School, is a former movie stuntman. The defensive-driving school course is a side item for him. He spends most of his time teaching people how to be drag racers. Bond boasts that Maxwell makes a momentary appearance in the latest Tommy Lee Jones movie, U.S. Marshals.

As for Bond, he’s running for a position on the Memphis Board of Education. He’s got plenty of ideas, too, such as what he would change about the driving lessons teens have to take before they can get their license. “I was never happy with the way driver’s ed was taught,” he says. “Teenagers have a lot more challenges now.”

I call Rangemaster. I ask the operations manager, Tom Givens, about his company’s relationship with Max Maxwell, the owner of The Driving School.

“We just refer people to each other. We refer people to him, and he refers people to us,” Givens says. “If Max said that, we’ll give you a 10 percent discount. I didn’t know he was still doing that. Bring it [your certificate of completion] on in.”

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