It is easy to start a driving school, but be aware that some might be taking you for a different kind of ride, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Driving schools are not regulated in South Africa, which means that if you want to take lessons, it’s pot luck because most so-called schools are not professional outfits.

They shouldn’t be teaching - let alone be on the road.

Many of these are not in the business to teach a new generation of safe, defensive drivers - they’re in it for the money.

Readers have contacted me in recent weeks about two driving schools in Cape Town, which are linked. But with so many complaints on social media about driving school fraudsters, this is one lesson we should all take.

It seems to be the same modus operandi: selling driving education “packages” to customers, preferring upfront cash payments and, after a lesson or two, becoming uncontactable. There are no refunds - only offers of “vouchers” which can apparently be used at other driving schools (but are in fact worthless).

Leticia Garcia contacted me about DriveCo Driving Academy in the Cape Town City Bowl.

She writes: “I would like to bring to your attention a particular driving school that I feel is taking me and my son (and I am sure many others) for a scam.

"Their website is quite comprehensive and they offer the eager learner driver a variety of inviting packages. So in a nutshell here is how they work (our experience):

“You call/email them to book a lesson; their FIRST response time is impeccable (and please note ONLY the first time). They fetch you and take you for your first FREE lesson (as they like to call it). I, however, beg to differ... this is them reeling you in.

"The first 30 minutes they literally run through the packages and what you will be doing/taught during the lessons. The next 30 minutes they assess your driving skills.

"By the end of the lesson they are ready to receive your cash (in my case R1 800) for the package you chose, the receipt gets written and you arrange when your next lesson will be.”

In her case, though, there was never another lesson.

“I was told that the driving instructor who took me actually didn’t work for the driving school anymore, he just happened to be there that day and stole my details off their system, so they have no record of receiving my money.”

Garcia’s son joined a few days later, also did the first “free” lesson, they took his R1 800 and he was given a receipt. He received his second lesson, but then the stories started: you aren’t able to book lessons when convenient; the instructors are always different; they don’t pitch up; and their phones are switched off.

“I urge you to look into this company. I am so disappointed. My son and I saved up for these lessons and now all our money is just gone.”

Camille, who didn’t reveal her surname, had a similar problem, and because she’s a foreigner, the instructor took advantage of the language barrier. She says: “DriveCo gives 30-minute driving classes, instead of an hour, to their students. Meaning that you have to pay for more hours because you only get 30 minutes driving. What they do is that they come fetch you and they drive you until where they find a good idea to drive you, make you drive for 30 minutes and then drop you wherever.

"I had six different driving instructors. I spent R3 000. Also, DriveCo has the same owner of another driving school, Honeybee, so when a customer is not happy they send you to another one of them.”

The industry’s a mess, SA Institute of Driving Schools (Saidi) founder Pat Allen explains, because driving school operators do as they please and there are far too many fly-by-night operators who don’t know what they’re doing, shouldn’t be teaching and don’t conduct themselves ethically.

Saidi was established in 1975, in an attempt to professionalise and standardise the industry. But, 44 years later, there’s still no legislation in place that requires driving schools and instructors to comply with any standards.

The institute is recognised by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, provincial traffic authorities, the Institute for Advanced Motorists of South Africa, the Automobile Association and the national Department of Transport.

Membership of Saidi is voluntary, says Allen, and her organisation has the most stringent criteria.

“We don’t take just anyone. People ask us why our membership is so small. It’s because we struggle to have acceptable members. I estimate that most instructors are unregistered and illegal.”

Saidi requires copies of driving licences, IDs, proof of insurance and an instructor’s certificate from their members.

They’ve heard numerous complaints about DriveCo and Honeybee. Saidi has put up letters on its site, warning consumers about these and other operators (https://www.saidinational.org).

Currently, there’s nothing stopping any Joe Bloggs from opening a driving school. The legislation has been pending for years, and needs to be passed as an amendment to the Road Traffic Act. Until then there is nothing requiring registration either. All that the instructors need is a certificate, which they apply for each year at a testing station.

The Consumer Goods and Services Ombud has had success in getting driving schools to refund customers. But if that avenue doesn’t work, you might want to take criminal action. Ultimately, if a supplier takes your money with no intention to deliver a service, it’s fraud. So if you’ve been stung, press criminal charges.

DriveCo was repeatedly contacted but hadn’t responded by the time of publication.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.

The Star