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Immigrants learn the language of D.C. driving

Wednesday - 10/3/2012, 10:17am  ET

EMILY WAX
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Every day, just before dawn, you can spot Christian Kuete, a 24- year-old pre-med student and home health aide from Cameroon, sprinting in his beat-up sneakers to catch Metro Bus 20 as it bumps to a stop along University Boulevard in Langley Park. At 8 a.m., two more buses and two hours later, Kuete arrives at work. By dusk, he's back on mass transit, headed to his night classes at Montgomery College.

On this sunny fall afternoon, however, he's trying to seize his piece of the American dream. Seize it by the steering wheel. Kuete is a student at the Riteway Driving School in Hyattsville, and his goal is to take its Toyota Corolla onto the open highway _ the ultimate metaphor for American independence.

But first he needs to get out of this strip-mall parking lot.

"Let's begin to move," says his instructor, Isaac Vodi, a gentle, 64- year-old former taxi driver.

"Wait!" Vodi's normally melodic voice rises slightly. "Check your mirrors."

Thud. Kuete taps the bumper of a parked car while backing out.

Every year, legions of immigrants from all over the world must learn to navigate Washington's crazy quilt of traffic circles, one-way streets, cul-de- sacs, Beltway merges and, most recently, bike lanes. Driving instructors in the Washington region jokingly call it "the other DWI" _ Driving While Immigrant.

"The world lives here and sooner or later they drive here," says Riteway owner Vodi, who is from Ghana and now lives in Lanham.

While there are plenty of inept drivers who are American-born, driving in the U.S. poses specific challenges for non-English speakers _ not least of which is bearing the brunt of foreign-driver stereotypes. Adults relearning to drive in a country with stricter traffic laws than their own must first unlearn their old habits. Driving backward down a one-way street, for instance, is fairly common elsewhere in the world, says Jose Ucles, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Washington-based government agency.

As one of the most international regions in the country, the Washington metro area is home to drivers from countries where there is little or no driver education, where the rule of law is weak, the roads are narrow and everyone knows you can pay a "fine" (a.k.a. a bribe) if you're caught driving without a license or proper documentation.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India, Kenya and Nigeria consistently have the world's highest rates of traffic fatalities. About 90 percent of traffic injuries occur in developing countries, according to a 2009 report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the most recent data available.

"I know firsthand how people drive in our countries and it's, wow, just chaotic. In Spanish, we say on the roads it's `The law of the strongest,' where the biggest car will cut everyone else off," said Ucles, who's originally from Honduras and has worked on dozens of television and Internet campaigns with local Spanish-language news stations.

"Many countries don't have the wonderful traffic-safety laws that we do" he said. "So once they come to Washington, it's really about education." Ucles's agency does not keep data on the number of traffic accidents caused by recent arrivals to the U.S., nor does law enforcement.

But teachers such as Vodi say that their adult clients are mostly immigrants. Vodi _ who specializes in "re-teaching" drivers _ speaks French and English as well as Ewe and Twi, two Ghanian languages. That gives him a natural rapport with his students and great word-of-mouth business among French-speaking West African immigrants.

Is Vodi ever scared?

"All the time!" he says, as he grabs the wheel from Kuete and steers him back into his lane.

Short and compact with circular eyeglasses, a calm demeanor and a neatly trimmed goatee, Vodi was born the seventh son of illiterate rural cocoa farmers in Axim, a coastal region of Ghana.

His parents never drove.

He has three vertical cuts under each eye, which, he explains, "are traditional Ghanian marking for the seventh born, which is considered special and expected to achieve professional success."

They are not, he jokes, from a car accident.

Vodi was the only sibling to leave home. He went to bilingual secretarial school in Accra, the nation's capital, and got a job with Air Afrique. He came to the United States on a tourist visa in 1978, and ultimately became an American citizen in 2002.

He'd driven only a little bit in Ghana, but "nobody there follows any traffic rules. People drive on sidewalks! They pass on the right! It's not for the faint-hearted."

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