By Kenyon Wallace / Toronto Star Staff Reporter
Samantha Farr was in the midst of her first driving lesson with Peter’s Driving Academy in Scarborough, when her instructor told her to make an illegal stop, turn on the hazard lights and wait while he ran into Popeyes Chicken.
“He asked me if I wanted anything to eat and I told him no,” said Farr, 23. “I kept thinking how embarrassing it would be to explain this to a police officer should he pass by — that I was idling illegally outside of a Popeyes restaurant because my driving instructor told me to while he went in to get some chicken.”
The experience was just one in a bizarre series of episodes the Toronto administrative assistant says she encountered during her first weeks as a student at the school. She was so frustrated that she made a complaint to the Ministry of Transportation, whose job it is to regulate the driving instruction industry in Ontario.
An ongoing Star investigation of GTA driving schools has found gaps in provincial oversight and legislative loopholes that have raised safety concerns and created a chaotic industry for consumers to navigate.
When contacted by the Star, Mike Malik, Farr’s instructor, admitted that he asked Farr to park illegally while he got his lunch from Popeyes.
“I stopped to pick up my lunch, I know, but I gave the extra time to the student, too. That’s not a problem, five minutes,” he said. “I really apologize. Of course we apologize.”
Farr also alleges Malik talked on his cellphone for much of the first half of her first driving lesson with him in February.
Malik seemed unable to remember if he talked on the phone during the lesson.
“Usually, it’s not happening. I’m not saying she’s lying, but the customer is always right,” he told the Star.
To make amends, Malik said Farr has been offered a new batch of in-car lessons with a new instructor, which she has accepted. While he still holds his driving instructor licence, Malik said he is no longer providing in-car instruction.
As a new G1 driver, Farr paid $407 to take the provincially approved beginner driver course with Peter’s to increase her confidence behind the wheel and qualify for a discount on her car insurance.
The provincial course — consisting of both in-car and in-class instruction — can be provided only by schools approved by the Ministry of Transportation. Peter’s Driving Academy, which has seven locations across the GTA, is approved to provide the course.
Farr says the first sign that the course was not what she had signed up for was when her classroom instructor was replaced after the first few classes by a new instructor who “wasn’t able to speak or teach in English very successfully.”
Adding to her confusion, Farr soon learned that the Sheppard Ave. location of Peter’s seemed to be operating under two different names.
When she complained to the Peter’s head office on Warden Ave. about the standard of the in-class instruction, she was told those classes were in fact provided by another driving school, A1 Seneca Driving School.
“I didn’t know what to do at that point,” Farr said. “I was scared that since they weren’t really a Peter’s I would not be able to get my money back.”
An Interac receipt provided to Farr when she paid a portion of her course fee in late February shows the recipient as “A1 Seneca Driving” using the same Sheppard Ave. address and phone number as Peter’s Driving Academy.
When asked about the receipt discrepancy Monday, Malik’s wife, Iram, who along with her husband runs the Sheppard Ave. location of Peter’s, told the Star they were originally planning to keep the A1 Seneca name when they opened at the beginning of the year.
“It’s just the machine’s name that was not changed at the time,” she told the Star. “It is not A1 Seneca anymore.” She added that her location now goes by simply Peter Drivers. Mike Malik called Farr’s concerns about the two names a “misunderstanding.”
The Ministry of Transportation confirmed that A1 Seneca Driving was approved to teach new drivers before changing its name to Peter Drivers.
Farr says she feels like she was “brushed off” by the transportation ministry when she emailed and called to complain about her experience.
Ministry spokesman Bob Nichols confirmed to the Star that it had received Farr’s complaint and said only that the province was “following up.”
He said Monday that the ministry is still considering the Star’s request for the names of the 477 driving instructors who have had their teaching licences revoked in the past five years and the reasons why. The Star asked for this information as part of its ongoing investigation.
While Farr says Peter’s seems to have taken her complaints seriously and have provided her with a new instructor, she says these steps don’t make up for the “awful and even sometimes frightening experience” she had.
“It’s obvious that there needs to be accountability held on the part of both the Ministry of Transportation as well as the people in charge of these driving schools, for everyone’s safety.”
Kenyon Wallace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-869-4734.