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S.F. instructor specializes in coaxing frightened would-be motorists to banish their fears of city streets

Marianne Constantinou -- February, 1999

As any woman knows, there are all sorts of wily ways to woo back a man.

And then there's the Maria Banuelos Method. When she says she's going to go out and pick up her man, she doesn't mean resorting to a peekaboo outfit or assuring him he's a hunk. (Though she might do that, too.) No, she really means Pick Up, like pulling up outside his house in a shiny rental, honking the horn and, surprise, taking him for a spin around the block and, with any luck, back into her arms.

Till this month, Banuelos couldn't drive to save her life or her 10-year romance. She didn't want to. She was too scared. Even hypnosis and her ex-boyfriend's impatience couldn't get her to slip behind the wheel of his 1991 Crown Victoria.

But now, at 38, she's taking driving lessons to win back her beau and her self-confidence. She's even managed to drive on the freeway without killing anyone. Inspired by her own derring-do, she's taking skydiving lessons.

And, like hundreds of other adult wannabe drivers over the years, she owes it all to Judy Lundblad, 50, owner and sole instructor of Ann's Driving School.

There are dozens of driving schools in San Francisco, but Ann's is unique. For starters, it's the only one owned and run by a woman. And it specializes in the panicked, petrified, phobic adult who would no sooner drive than, well, go skydiving.

"There's a real stigma attached to not driving," said Lundblad. "I get to meet a secret society because they don't go around saying: "I can't drive, I'm scared,' because people will say, "What's your problem?' "

The secrets to Lundblad's success are obvious. 1) Patience, patience, patience. 2) Good listening skills as students unburden their woes as adults who can't drive. 3) A really reliable set of dual-control brakes.

"I want to put this sign on the outside of my car: "It's More Than Driving. It's Therapy,' " said Lundblad during a lesson with Banuelos, a bank loan processor who lives on Nob Hill.

Teenage rite of passage

For most adults, driving is an everyday skill they take for granted and driving lessons are the stuff of comical nostalgia, a rite of passage they had to endure as teenagers, like pimples and that first French kiss.

But not all grown-ups know how to drive. They had some nightmare experience and got scared off. Or - like many of Lundblad's widowed students in their 60s, 70s and even 80s whose husbands always did the driving - they kept putting it off and putting it off until learning to drive had become this really big deal. And the more they procrastinated, the more their nervousness ballooned into phobias.

"I was born with this scared-driving gene," said A.W. Lercher, a writer in her 40s who quit driving in San Francisco 20 years ago after rolling backward down a steep hill. She later moved to the New York suburbs and drove when she had children. But once she returned here, she felt she needed Lundblad's help.

"I'm traffic phobic," added the Richmond District resident, who is so embarrassed by her fears that she wanted only her pen name used. "My biggest fear is the zooming traffic on freeways, with all those twists and turns. Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!"

Not that they feel their fears are irrational. Driving is dangerous. A millisecond's mistake can take a life, or as Lercher can't help thinking: "Change the CD and you're dead."

With age, they've lost teenagers' blissful sense of immortality.

"As an adult, all the responsibilities hit you more," said David Raymond, 35, of Pacific Heights, a photography art dealer who got his license a few years ago, thanks to Lundblad's coaching, but is still the reluctant driver. "A vehicle is a 2-ton lethal weapon. I don't think people realize the chain reaction, what can go wrong from a single action."

Reasons to take a cab

Just thinking about all the possible calamities out there is enough to make adult neophyte drivers run off to hail a cab.

There are red-light runners. Merging lanes. Hills with roller-coaster drops. Cliffs. Bridges. Skyways that spin off into the wild blue yonder. Road rage. Drunk drivers. Zombie pedestrians. Kamikaze cyclists. Mercedes drivers. And everyone's nightmare, the freeways.

"Some people think of the strangest fears and hold onto it," Lundblad said.

One student was panicked at the notion of hitting a pedestrian.

"Will I know it if I run over someone?" was his fear. So Lundblad took him over a speed bump. Did he feel that? He felt instantly relieved.

For years, many of Lundblad's students mostly kept their driving phobias to themselves. It was nothing to brag about. Other people didn't understand. They teased them and poked fun. Or, like Banuelos' boyfriend, it was a source of irritation and conflict.

"It's too embarrassing to admit," said Karen Warner, 52, of Brisbane, a writer who got her license in October but is still taking lessons to learn how to parallel park and to relax on San Francisco's congested streets and on freeways.

"You mention at a party that you can't drive and everybody stops and stares at you," she added. "People say like "Why?' It's like having some horrible disease, especially in California."

Nondrivers can blend in

But in San Francisco, nondrivers can easily hide. It's a small city. Where they can't walk, they can take Muni or BART, hail a cab or impose on a friend.

Yet that fear of driving kept nagging at them, Lundblad's students said. Most are successful in other areas of their lives. They're professionals - therapists, doctors, nurses, writers, bankers, computer analysts. They run their own businesses and have raised children. One is even a multimillionaire heir. Their average age is 44.

Sometimes the decision to learn to drive is forced on them.

Banuelos' boyfriend cited her driving phobia as one of the biggest reasons he was breaking up with her. Warner moved in with her boyfriend in suburbia, and felt trapped without a car. Beatrice Kearney, 78, of Parkside, picked up the phone and called Lundblad when her husband died last fall. He had done all the driving after she had hip surgery five years ago, and she felt she needed some refresher courses and confidence-boosting.

But others decide to take the plunge because it's time already.

Grayce Dello Joio, 76, of Cathedral Hill, hadn't driven in 20 years, but was fed up with public transit, especially at night when she went to her beloved music concerts.

"Everybody goes away in their cars," said Dello Joio, who directs a group that sponsors chamber concerts. "And there you are, waiting for a cab, hopefully."

Barbara Carberry, 39, of Nob Hill, who's in public relations, was also fed up. She is on her sixth learner's permit. She wants independence. She wants to travel. She wants her sister's car.

And not having a driver's license is a pain.

"I'm tired of people asking me: "Do you have any ID?' Yeah, my gym card."

Carberry, whose nasal New Yawk whine is pure Fran Drescher of TV's "The Nanny," grew up in New York City, where driving is the exception rather than the rule. She tried off-and-on to learn to drive, but said her past driving teachers were like plants from TV's "Candid Camera." One guy's chief driving advice: "Be careful of people lying on the road trying to commit suicide."

Instead, from Lundblad, she gets only calm, soothing practical advice: Go straight. Try not to bang into parked cars. Watch that pedestrian. Keep up with traffic.

"Did I tell you that I hear Judy in my dreams: "Check the mirror, check the mirror.' "

Professional truck driver

Lundblad knows of what she speaks. For nine years she was a professional driver, a truck driver for FedEx.

About six years ago, an acquaintance suggested she help out at his driving school. She did, and enjoyed it so much she decided a year later to start her own business.

Her Yellow Pages ad is modest, and her phone message advises she's not cheap, $110 for a two-hour lesson. But word-of-mouth has kept her so busy that she said she has to turn students away.

Her clientele is almost all adults, and she's drawn to students who express a fear of driving. She especially likes helping women earn that sense of empowerment that driving can give. Seventy-five percent of her students are women, but that percentage is soon to change: She recently signed a contract to spruce up the driving skills of 166 nuns, ages 30 to 89.

"It seems like they can't back up," Lundblad said.

Of course, there are times when she agrees with friends: she must be nuts to be teaching people how to drive. She jokes that she had to quit drinking to take on this job, since she has to stay sharp and sober. But some lessons make her nostalgic for a stiff drink.

Just about every day, she and a student bond with some near-death experience.

"I get enough adrenaline some days to kill a horse," she said.

Hanging on the "panic bar'

On her right hand she wears a driving glove. That's to cut down on the calluses from gripping onto the handle above the passenger seat. Lundblad calls the handle her "panic bar."

Her 1997 Toyota Corolla is equipped with dual gas and brake pedals, on the driver's side for the student, and on the passenger's side for Lundblad. But she chose not to add a second steering wheel. She picks up many of her students at their jobs, so she wanted the vehicle to be discreet to avoid embarrassing them. Chances are, her students' colleagues don't know they're taking lessons.

Not having a steering wheel to call her own means that the student has almost complete control of the car. But when they lose control, Lundblad releases her grip on the panic bar, leans over, and shares the wheel with them, coaxing the car back in the lane.

Usually students are only too glad to let Lundblad take over, but sometimes they freeze and can't release their grip on the wheel. That's when Lundblad's adrenaline really starts pumping.

"Let go! Let go! Let go!" she chants, hoping that the shock of her voice turning from gentle teacher to drill sergeant doesn't panic her student even more.

But such panic shouts are rare. Mostly it's "Atta Girl" and "You can do it," and "You've got the right to be on the road, too."

Carberry, on her fifth lesson the other night and ready to take her driver's test, couldn't stop cracking jokes about being driving-challenged.

"OK, lock your doors everybody, put your seat belts on," Carberry said. "I'm pulling out (dramatic pause) in traffic (dramatic pause) at night!"

Moments later, she realized she hadn't taken her own advice.

"Oh, Gawd, I didn't have my seat belt on," she said in mock horror. "That's so wrong."

Carberry had never driven at night before, never parallel parked and had little experience with hills. But she pulled it all off without a hitch. With her new confidence, she could take on any challenge.

Take honkers. They used to make her want to crawl under the dashboard in panic, like, "What did I do wrong now?"

But these days she is able to handle honkers like a mature adult ready to take on the responsibilities of the road.

"Bite me!"

It's enough to make a teacher proud.

©1999 San Francisco Examiner

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