For 35 years Don Saunders has had teenagers shaking in their sneakers.
They have feared him like no other adult.
For thousands of teenagers it was Saunders and Saunders alone who stood between them and the freedom they daydreamed about during countless algebra classes.
Saunders recently retired from his position as a state of Maine driver’s license examiner.
He has a lot of stories.
When I learned, upon his retirement, that one of those trembling teenaged boys he tested behind the wheel was none other than Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s current Secretary of State and Saunders’ boss, I became interested.
When I learned that it took three of those dreaded yet highly anticipated meetings for Dunlap to finally get Saunders’ signature onto the bottom of that coveted temporary license I knew I had to give him a call.
That’s right, Saunders sent the young Matthew Dunlap packing twice before passing him.
“To give him his due, I officially only failed him once,” Saunders said over coffee earlier this week. “The second time I refused to take him because his father had not removed the studded snow tires from the vehicle and it was officially illegal to be on the road.”
Saunders only had a vague recollection of the long-ago meetings, but Dunlap remembered.
“He brought it up five years ago when we had a little ceremony to present me with my 30-year [employment] pin,” Saunders recalled.
What did young Matthew do wrong the first time?
“I guess he forgot to look over his shoulder. That’s what most of them do,” Saunders said casually.
Actually, Dunlap confirmed that he failed to yield for a pedestrian at the Church Street intersection in Ellsworth.
While Dunlap didn’t make a lasting impression on Saunders, the young woman who was taking her test drive and crashed head-on into a Jeep at an Ellsworth intersection, just about one-tenth of a mile from where the test began, did.
He had helped make the testing arrangements himself for the young woman. Seems Saunders’ father was a bail commissioner in Ellsworth and kept getting called down to bail out this woman who repeatedly got picked up for driving without a license.
“Well, he called me up and said, ‘look this poor girl needs to get her license. She keeps getting pulled over on her way to work and now they have taken to arresting her because she won’t stop,’” Saunders recalled.
Seems she had a hard time fitting a test into her work schedule.
Saunders got her in touch with the right person who scheduled the test and when she arrived Saunders happened to be her examiner.
They didn’t make it far.
“That was my only head-on collision,” he noted, adding no one was hurt.
Accidents, however, are not uncommon.
He explained the unofficial rating system.
“We have the bump, meaning no damage, we have the crunch, meaning damage under $1,000 and we have the crash,” he said. “We have three to five bumps, crunches or crashes per examiner each week. I’m telling you it’s hazardous duty. I know cops who would take a bullet who swear they wouldn’t do my job.”
Saunders claims examiners are taught to tug on their own ear if they suspect a collision is at hand.
“See, you get in that habit and the trick is that it’s a short distance from the ear to the back of the neck. So if you think there may be an incident you tug your ear and you can easily reach your hand to the back of your neck to provide it with some support. It’s a true story,” he said.
“You know those driving instructors, they have a brake on their side of the car. We don’t have that,” he noted.
What does it take to be a good license examiner?
In his thick Down East accent, Saunders replied stoically, “Well, you can’t be at all a nervous person.”
Saunders could spot the nervous kid right away.
“The minute I open the door and ask for the paperwork,” he said. “There are the ones who hand you that paperwork and their hands are just a shakin’. Then I ask them whether they had studied for the eye test. The ones who are nervous just go completely blank. It goes right over their heads. Then I take their paperwork and tell them to go out to their car and tremble quietly until I arrive.”
Once in the car, however, Saunders would use his years of experience to try to calm those frayed nerves and reassure the young driver.
“I mean coming from Down East, some of these kids come from all over and haven’t even driven in Ellsworth before.They haven’t changed lanes, may not have even been through a traffic light believe it or not. And some just haven’t had enough driving time. Moms and dads are busy. So if they fail it’s because they truly need more practice,” he said.
This week Dunlap has found himself thinking a lot about teenage drivers. He has been in front of the TV cameras discussing two recent tragedies involving teen drivers disregarding the law prohibiting new drivers from transporting other teens under the age of 18. Two fatalities resulted.
“Don’s a fantastic guy and has been a great resource to me and this department. We joke and kid a lot, but these examiners are well aware of the importance of their job and when someone they passed is killed in a car accident it takes a toll, but I tell them there is only so much we can do. These kids make decisions every day and unfortunately some of them are bad ones,” Dunlap said.
Though he’s been the “scary guy” to so many teens, Saunders isn’t a scary guy at all. He’s laid-back, quick witted and patient, but he and Dunlap know what can result from the very bad decisions some young drivers make after they leave the DMV parking lot with their temporary licenses. Those decisions will forever leave Saunders, Dunlap and thousands of parents shaking in their own shoes.