Teaching road rules to the young and old
By Nick Walden / Towns Correspondent
While her father might have had more movies stars in his driving school, very few driving instructors, if any, can lay claim to teaching a princess how to drive. For Roileen Miller, who has run Miller Driving School in Cotati for the past 35 years, that experience is just one of many that comes from teaching everyone from 16-year-old teenagers to 97-year-old seniors how to drive.
“I taught the King of Saudi Arabia’s sister how to drive back in the eighties,” said Roileen Miller. “I still have a Parade magazine that has the whole royal family on the cover that she signed!”
Sonoma State University has hosted numerous exchange students over the years including some from Saudi Arabia.
“They actually advertised Miller Driving School in Saudi Arabia because I was a woman,” Miller said. “For the women over here whose husbands were attending SSU, I could teach them whereas a man could not.”
Interestingly it wasn’t just for the experience in learning how to drive, but instead obtaining the license itself that mattered.
“They could drive here but they would go home and couldn’t drive a car in their country, but it was a status symbol to have a California driver’s license.”
The original Miller Driving School was started by Roileen’s father in Palm Springs in 1964. Roy Miller was a driver education instructor at Palm Springs High School when he decided to open the school which Roileen worked at before moving to Sonoma County.
“He wanted to open a school for me when I moved here,” said Miller of her father. “If I didn’t like it he would sell it, but I ended up liking it which is funny because I never liked riding in cars.”
Thirty-five years later Miller estimates she has taught around 50,000 people how to drive. Her list of students include teens, foreign exchange students, adults who never learned how to drive, seniors who need to refresh skills and even truck drivers. They also teach defensive driving courses.
“The oldest I have ever taught was this year, a 97-year-old gentleman. He is sharp as a tack,” said Miller.
While he previously had a license, when it came time to renew he could not pass the test. Under Roileen’s guidance he went from failing to passing with a perfect score.
“People know the rules but quickly forget after passing that first driver’s test,” she said.
With the thousands of people she has ridden with over the years you would think there would be quite a few cringe-worthy experiences, even for someone as safe as Miller.
“I have control in the car. I never take someone who hasn’t driven to a place where I can’t control the situation,” said Miller. “New drivers are looking right in front of them but I am already blocks ahead of where we are.”
However even with preparation and access to a chicken brake, the master brake pedal installed in driving instructor cars that will override the driver’s brake, the occasional driver can still surprise Miller.
One older student in her thirties was taking driving lessons secretly so she could divorce her husband.
“Every time she passed him she would duck down behind the wheel,” said Miller. “I would shout, ‘What are you doing?'”
She did end up earning her driver’s license and, Miller assumes, divorced her husband.
Miller Driving School has always been a family-oriented business in both name and the type of relationships she has formed with her staff, which includes third-generation driving instructors.
The original Miller’s in Palm Springs is now owned and operated by Roileen’s niece and nephew. The Cotati School that Roileen owns has a branch in Petaluma, one in Ukiah that Roileen’s daughter Holly runs and a cousin operates the Fort Bragg branch.
In the Cotati office she has created “a smooth-running machine” with people who truly enjoy what they do with most staff members having been with the company for a decade or more.
“We have lots of experience here,” she said. “We are not a fly by night operation.”
Interestingly enough, the building that Miller’s occupies has an automotive history in Cotati originally housing the A.W. Fox’s Speedway Garage back in the 1920’s that catered to racers.
Over the years many things have changed about driving; more electronics in the car, self-parking autos, the removal of certain aspects of the DMV driving test, but Miller sticks to teaching people how to be safe behind the wheel. Her goal is that students learn to drive properly and not just pass a test.
“They (the DMV) don’t do the 3-point-turn or make people parallel park anymore,” she said. “You also have to turn off any electronic warning systems.”
Always flexible, Miller has learned how to overcome hearing issues and even language barriers when instructing.
“I made up little cue cards for a hearing impaired driver,” she said. For another driver from Vietnam she enlisted his friend as a translator and would even pantomime actions when words would fail to get the point across about how he needed to turn his head to look both directions.
She has even invented some new training methods based on her location for brand new drivers.
“I send people to Scandia to drive around in the little cars on the track,” she admitted with a smile. “Even playing some of the driving video games shows how you can wipe out real fast.”
One of the more odd things she has noted about being a driving instructor is that is a mix of being a counselor and confidant. She said that nerves can very well fail a person the first time they take a driver’s test rather than a lack of knowledge.
However in some cases people fail because they simply shouldn’t be behind the wheel anymore.
“It can be tough tell people they can’t drive anymore,” she said. “One woman told me her life would be over if she couldn’t drive.”
Sometimes, Miller admitted, she would just have to let people try to take the test and fail to see that they really shouldn’t be on the road anymore.
For the most part however, Miller is enjoying what she does.
“Everyone wants to get a driver’s license. We like what we do and that makes such a big difference.”
In the future Miller plans on turning the business over to her children, but for now she plans on teaching until it’s not safe anymore.
“That means at least until I am 97,” she said with a laugh.