Every house now has multiple vehicles; and learning driving, after all, is like an investment

In the tidy, air-conditioned Gopalakrishna Driving School on T.T.K Road, G. Dhanasekaran advises two women on the documents they will need for a driving licence. “My father — an advocate’s driver — started the driving school right here, 40 years back,” he tells me after the women leave. “Then, business was good, there wasn’t so much competition. Today, in Chennai alone, there are hundreds of driving schools,” he says.

“Every week, we apply for 10 licences (two/four wheelers). After getting the LLR, we teach driving for 20 days, and then the driving test takes place at the RTO. Most people get through, as we pay a lot of attention to detail. We begin lessons on roads where there’s not much traffic, before graduating to the crowded stretches; we also train people on negotiating slopes, driving in reverse, and a little about car maintenance (how to check oil, air etc).”

What about the bane of urban life — parking in tight spots, I ask him. “That cannot be mastered in a mere 20 days,” he laughs, “it comes only with experience.” The fees for training and getting a licence is Rs. 4,000, for four-wheelers and Rs. 3,500 for two-wheelers, a steep rise from his father’s time, when it was just Rs. 500. The last couple of years, he’s also engaged women instructors to teach women. “For some people, there are family constraints, they ask for lady teachers,” he explains.

Married, (his son is in kindergarten) 33-year-old Dhanasekaran tells me about assisting drivers in getting heavy vehicle licences. “But we don’t teach driving in this case. It is tough to train someone to drive a bus or lorry on these roads. So, they learn by themselves — on water tankers or private buses — and come here for the licence, which costs Rs. 6,000.” Heavy vehicle licence (for vehicles with six-wheels) are only for experienced and talented drivers. The test for this licence is more rigorous, and takes place in the Government IRT ground, at Taramani. “The inspector will sit in the bus, and the applicant has to do a right/ left/U turn, drive up a slope and go in reverse. The pass rate is about 50 per cent. But these are big vehicles, and the inspectors are cautious and rightly so.”

But there are always people who bend rules. “The minimum age for a driving licence has been raised to 18; as they have removed the category of non-geared, 50cc two-wheeler licence. But 16-year-olds still drive around, and they claim only bikes are geared,” he laments.

Besides fresh licences — for which Dhanasekaran, interestingly, sees equal number of men and women applicants for two-wheelers, and a skewed two men for every woman in the case of 4-wheelers — driving schools also help renew licences. “It’s very simple, all that is needed is a new photograph and a medical certificate, to certify that the vision and motor skills of the driver are good.” What, then, about physically-challenged drivers, I ask him. “They get a different licence, ‘Invalid carriage’, which is valid only for modified vehicles.”

Talking loudly, to be heard over the raucous traffic on T.T.K Road, Dhanasekaran says that since his father’s time, the driving school has processed thousands of applications. But now competition eats into their business. “Outside the R.T.O offices, there are brokers; they have no over-heads — no office rents or the expense of maintaining a car; so they charge less to obtain licences; that affects our business.” But he does not see business drying up. “There are so many people migrating to the city everyday; every house now has multiple vehicles; and learning driving, after all, is like an investment. You can always get a job if you’re skilled!”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)