Star investigation: Driving schools bending the rules to make a buck
Transportation Minister Glen Murray vows action as Star investigation reveals scores of driving schools across the GTA are teaching new drivers without ministry approval.
By KENYON WALLACE/News Reporter
New drivers across the GTA are entrusting their training to driving schools that are not licensed to teach them, a Star investigation reveals.
A Star reporter posing as a beginner G1 driver found 50 schools willing to offer in-car lessons even though they are not authorized by the province to do so.
Driving instructor Gurmeet Kaur insisted her New Learner’s Driving School in Brampton is approved by the Ministry of Transportation. It’s not.
Instructor Khushwant Rai Mittal told the Star he “sometimes” offers new drivers lessons even after admitting that his Impact Driving School isn’t supposed to.
Artur Duarte Assuncao said he had no idea that he needed provincial approval to offer G1 drivers in-car lessons through his Stop-Automobile Driving School.
These instructors, and dozens of others like them, are able to turn a profit teaching new drivers because the transportation ministry is not monitoring them.
Many of them get around provincial rules by signing a contract with a ministry-approved school and then setting up their own school on the side.
The incentive? More students, more money and cash in hand.
The danger? New drivers are learning from schools operating with little or no oversight.
And drivers beware: insurance companies told the Star that if you are in an accident while taking lessons from these schools you may not be fully protected.
When presented with some of the Star’s findings, newly minted Transportation Minister Glen Murray said there is “clearly more work to do,” adding the ministry is now taking steps to educate new drivers, schools and instructors about the law.
But for parents and students looking to get good driver training now, the industry is a “minefield,” said Anne Marie Hayes, president of Teens Learn to Drive, a Mississauga-based non-profit whose mission is to reduce death and injury from traffic accidents.
“Schools that are not approved are completely unregulated,” Hayes told the Star. “There’s no guarantee the instructor can drive safely, let alone instruct or protect a student.
“A bad school will do more harm than good.”
Ontario introduced graduated licensing in 1994 to ensure new drivers gain experience before being granted full driving privileges.
New drivers first obtain a G1 licence by passing a written test, and can get their G2 licence by passing a road test after 12 months — eight months if they take a ministry-approved course. Drivers then take a second road test a year later to obtain their full G licence.
The provincial course for new drivers, known as beginner driver education, consists of both in-class and in-car instruction. New drivers who complete the ministry course are eligible for a discount on their car insurance when they receive their G2 licence.
With provincial statistics consistently showing that more drivers between the ages of 17 and 24 are involved in collisions than any other age group, better oversight and good instruction are key to safety on our roads, Hayes said.
It is not legal for driving instructors to give lessons to a G1 driver unless they do so through a school approved by the Ministry of Transportation.
But instructors looking to make more money have found a way around that.
This is how it works: instructors working for a ministry-approved school take on G1 students using the name of a school they’ve set up on their own. This way, they don’t have to pay an approved school a cut of what they make.
If students request the full ministry-approved course, the instructor will refer them to the approved school for the in-class portion. Some of the instructors the Star spoke with said because the approved schools get the students’ business for the course’s in-class portion, they often don’t care if instructors use their own signs.
The problem with this setup, says Bill Pollock, one of only 15 master instructors in Ontario qualified to teach other instructors, is that when a student takes lessons from an instructor operating under their own school name, there is no way to monitor the quality of instruction.
“There’s no oversight whatsoever for students generated from your own roof sign. Nobody’s watching you. There’s no accountability,” he said.
“An instructor working for an approved school is obligated to follow the proper program, vetted through the Ministry of Transportation. For example, you wouldn’t teach freeway driving in the first couple of lessons as part of an approved program.”
All 50 of the instructors at the non-approved schools the Star spoke with agreed to provide in-car lessons for anywhere between $25 and $45 an hour, money they keep.
A Star reporter posed as a G1 driver to see if schools that are not approved by the ministry to teach beginner drivers would agree to provide an in-car lesson. When the reporter met with instructors in person after being told he could get a lesson, he identified himself and explained the story he was writing.
The Star determined which schools were not ministry-approved by cross-referencing the school names — found in community newspapers, on websites such as Kijiji and Craigslist, and municipal business licence lists — against a list of approved schools on the transportation ministry’s website.
Impact Driving School owner Khushwant Rai Mittal, who operates in Brampton and Mississauga, said he makes more money teaching students under his own school name than he does if the students come through a ministry-approved school.
He charges $30 an hour under his own name, but makes only $25 an hour when teaching students registered with the ministry-approved school he works with.
Mittal told the Star he plans to leave the driving-instruction industry at the end of March with the hope of taking on a more lucrative job driving trucks.
“In this business, there is no stability. Sometimes you make money, sometimes you don’t,” said Mittal, who estimates that he makes between $20,000 and $30,000 a year as a driving instructor.
“It’s very tough.”
Many schools that are not ministry approved have slick, professional-looking ads and websites that use the phrase “ministry-approved course,” and blatantly advertise that they teach G1 drivers.
Gurmeet Kaur’s New Learner’s Driving School, for example, used to advertise as Aknoor’s Driving Training and claimed online that it provided a “ministry-approved course” and a “40% insurance discount,” with a “100% guarantee to pass first time.”
When the Star set up a lesson with Kaur, she said her school was licensed by both the province and the City of Brampton.
A small plate issued by the city on the back of Kaur’s vehicle is in fact registered to Auto Star Driver Training, which is ministry approved. The sign on the top of her car is for her own school, New Learner’s Driving School.
Kaur charges $20 an hour for in-car lessons, and said if her Brampton students request a full beginner driver course, she refers them to Auto Star for the in-class portion of the course at a cost of $135, which is paid to the school.
Auto Star owner Harbhajan Dhaul confirmed that Kaur is an instructor with his school, and said he has warned her to stop using her own sign when teaching G1 students.
“The contract very clearly says you must use the Auto Star sign for instruction,” said Dhaul, noting that he can do little to stop employees from using their own signs.
Gurdeep Singh’s Auto Deep Driver Training School is not ministry approved, but he agreed to meet a Star reporter posing as a G1 driver for a lesson in Brampton.
He said he could provide the full beginner driver education course for $400 by referring students to a ministry-approved school for the course’s in-class portion. Of the $400, he said he would pay the school $130 and keep the rest, netting him $270.
Singh told the Star some ministry-approved driving-school operators don’t care if instructors teach under their own school name if the instructor finds the student on their own.
“When you have your own student, OK, you can use your sign,” said Singh.
Artur Duarte Assuncao, owner of Stop-Automobile Driving School in Toronto, said he had no knowledge of the rule preventing non-ministry approved schools from teaching G1 drivers.
Assuncao, 76, said his school used to be approved to provide the full beginner driver course, but isn’t now that he is semi-retired. He still maintains a City of Toronto business licence to provide in-car lessons and said he thought he could teach G1 drivers even though he is not affiliated with a ministry-approved school.
“I didn’t know that,” he told the Star.
Assuncao, who charges $35 per lesson, said that when potential students call asking for the full beginner driver course, he makes it clear that he does not offer it.
“I’m a man of laws.”
Rocco Neglia, vice-president of claims for Economical Insurance, one of a handful of insurance companies in Ontario that offer coverage to driving schools and instructors, warns that there could be trouble for G1 drivers if they are in an accident while taking lessons from a non-ministry approved school.
Neglia says that if the instructor does not disclose that their vehicle is being used for third-party driving instruction, the insurance company “may not respond to the physical damage to the vehicle because they were not aware of the risk, or to the liability portion beyond strict minimum liability coverage.”
“The G1 student driver would be entitled to mandatory accident benefits from the instructor’s coverage, but would likely not receive any income replacement benefits,” he told the Star in an email.
The ministry currently audits approved schools every three to five years, but will do so more often if complaints are received. Driving instructors caught teaching G1 drivers when they aren’t supposed to can have their licences revoked.
Since 2007, ministry-approved driving schools have been required to pay the province $15 for every student they enrol. This money, approximately $2.1 million annually, is supposed to assist the ministry in overseeing new driver education, including enforcing the rules.
“That was the deal. We pay the money and they’ll clean up the industry. Well, carry on and clean it up,” said Peter Christianson, president of Young Drivers of Canada, Ontario’s largest driving school. “Money that is earned from road safety should go back into road safety.”
There are 193 driving schools in the GTA approved by the province to offer lessons to new drivers and nearly 6,000 licensed driving instructors across Ontario.
The instructors of the schools the Star met with that are not approved by the province to teach G1 drivers said they believed they were operating legally. Many complained of confusing rules with competing provincial and municipal jurisdictions.
Several municipalities, including Brampton, Mississauga and Toronto, issue business licences to driving schools even though these schools may not be approved by the province to teach G1 drivers — they can still teach G2 drivers.
“This lack of communication and alignment between cities and the province is a big part of the problem,” said master instructor Pollock. “It is just this sort of confusion and nonsense that creates wiggle room for schools to claim they are following the rules when indeed they are not.”
On its website, the Ministry of Transportation warns new drivers to “choose carefully” when deciding on a school. “Look for schools that offer MTO-approved beginner driver education courses or ministry-approved driver education courses,” the site says. “Beginner driving schools in Ontario are regulated by MTO.”
Transportation Minister Murray told the Star he has asked his ministry to review its “enforcement and oversight options for driver education.”
He said every new G1 driver in Ontario will be receiving a notice with a link to a list of all ministry-approved schools and information on the benefits of choosing such a school.
But Gurdip Atwal, president of the Driving Instructors Association of Ontario and owner of Starlite Driver Training in Guelph and Cambridge, described the minister’s response as a “political answer.”
“We’ve been hearing that for a long, long time. There’s nothing new,” Atwal said.
Instead, Atwal proposes that the government leave the driving-instruction industry altogether. He suggests the creation of a self-regulating body — much like the colleges that exist for doctors and lawyers — that would handle auditing, training and discipline.
“The ministry shouldn’t be here because they truly don’t understand the industry,” Atwal said. “The industry is crying out that there are bad apples and we’re suffering, but nobody does anything about it . . . We are professionals. We teach people and their lives depend on that.”
Have you ever had a bad experience with a driving school? Let us know. Contact Kenyon Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-869-4734.