In the Driving Seat

20 March 2020

As a former driving instructor, Don Welsh has helped more than 3,000 learners get their licence. Over the years, he’s coached people from all walks of life and all corners of the world, guiding everyone from nervous stallers to plucky petrolheads to pass their driving test. These days, he still loves being behind the wheel and drives the village van at Summerset in the Vines, Havelock North.

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You might not think that a driver’s licence can change a life, but Don Welsh has seen the proof. Whether he’s teaching an older driver who has stayed off the road due to a health issue, a young person who is overcoming some challenges, a foreign student grappling with an unfamiliar place or a refugee facing a new start, Don says that getting a licence can be transformational. “You see people really grow in confidence,” he says. “For many, having a licence means they can get to a job, it means they can take on new opportunities. It can change people’s lives. Being an instructor has been so rewarding and I feel blessed to have done it.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t had some hair-raising times behind the wheel with novice drivers. And anyone who has tried to teach someone how to parallel park knows that it takes patience in spades.

“It can be a tricky job; I think you need to have no brains and no nerves! It’s scary because things can happen really quickly and I didn’t have dual controls in the cars I taught in. I had to have very quick reactions, I tell you! 

"Being an instructor has been so rewarding. You see people really grow in confidence."

Don still takes people for free driving lessons, and has recently helped a friend’s grandson to get his licence.

“It's absolutely essential to stay calm and quiet, and keep an encouraging tone. You can’t get aggravated as it just destroys people. When someone has a bad experience it really puts them off.”

After more than two decades of experience teaching others, Don had his turn to be tested recently. To drive the village bus, he had to prove his skills by passing a test with an AA examiner.

“We were driving around and he made me do a parallel park and a three-point turn in a narrow street. He said to me, ‘Have you been driving a lot of big trucks? Have you been studying the road code book?’ I said, ‘No, not for a while.’ In the end he told me I hadn’t made any mistakes, and I said, ‘That’s not bad for an 86-year-old, is it?!’ I had to tell him I had been an instructor, and he thought that was great.”

Don, who had previously worked in dairy farming in Hawke’s Bay, became interested in teaching after taking classes to help troubled teenaged boys pass their driving test. Following a move to Palmerston North with his wife Rene, he decided to take the plunge and start up a driving school at the age of 65. With the local Massey University a hotspot for overseas students, it wasn’t long before he was teaching the New Zealand road rules to people from Korea, China, Malaysia and Japan. One year, he met people from 35 different countries.

Soon after, a friend who taught at a school for teen mothers approached Don to ask if he would speak with the young women about road safety. The talk turned into driving lessons, and Don says that helping the teens to become confident, legally licensed drivers was hugely rewarding.

Other memorable work was with members of a refugee community newly arrived from Bhutan. “These people had been in refugee camps. They had hardly seen a car, let alone ridden in one,” Don says. With no money, poor English and no opportunity to find a job because they couldn’t get to work, they needed help. Don put up his hand and started working with the community free of charge.

“One man had to have 68 lessons, so that's 68 hours. He passed his driving test in the end and he got a job. You can't put a value on that."

Before long, Don’s community work was recognised and he was nominated for the ‘Good Sorts’ segment on the TV1 News. “They set up a camera in the car and a reporter came along when I was doing a lesson. It played on the telly and I still have the recording. That was interesting!”

He says the village bus is a dream to drive, and he enjoys hitting the road for concerts, market days and ‘blokes’ group’ outings.

For Don, the joy comes from helping others, and getting to combine this with his love of driving is a bonus. “Driving the bus has been a really good thing for me. I feel as though I’m contributing to the village and it’s important to me to feel like I’m doing something for the other residents. We’ve had some great trips, too.”

Read more about life at Summerset in our quarterly magazine Summerset Scene