Since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lifted the ban on women drivers for the first time in the country's history last fall, five all-female universities have opened driving schools, and each has an estimated 75,000 women on a waiting list.
You think the lines at the DMV are bad? Imagine waiting in a line of 75,000 people who all want to learn how to drive.
That’s what’s waiting for Sheryl Vanderwalker, the owner of the Rules of the Road Driving School in Enumclaw, who is preparing to spend a year in Saudi Arabia, teaching some of the 9 million women who have just gotten the right to drive.
Last fall, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lifted the ban on female drivers for the first time in the country’s history, making an American rite of passage a cultural phenomenon. (He has also been criticized for cracking down on human- and women’s-rights activists; and last week, the kingdom decided to cut diplomatic ties with Canada over diplomats’ tweets asking the kingdom to release the detained activists.)
Since taking the throne, the Saudi crown prince has made vast changes in the country’s culture, lifting a 35-year ban on cinemas, for example, but also focusing on the lives of women, allowing them for the first time to attend mixed-gender public events such as soccer games.
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Last fall, he lifted the ban on driving. Until the lift took effect in June, women had to depend on male chauffeurs or relatives to ferry them around, fetching their children from school, shopping, attending university.
The change is a major one for the Saudi culture, saving women money on transportation, and allowing them to become a larger part of the workforce, which is already happening, now that the Saudi economy is diversifying away from oil.
Some Saudi women had driver’s licenses from other countries and took the road right away. But the majority of the women eligible to drive will have to take classroom and driving lessons. Saudi Arabian law — based on a strict interpretation of Islam that segregates men and women in public spaces, including schools — requires women only be taught by other women.
So five all-female universities have opened driving schools, and each has an estimated 75,000 women on a waiting list.
That’s where Vanderwalker, 58, comes in. She is one of three women from the Northwest certified not only to teach driving — but also to train driving instructors, which Saudi Arabia now needs in droves.
“It’s going to take 10 years or more to be able to get through this backlog,” Vanderwalker said. “It’s a lot of women, and you’re talking about women who have never been on a bicycle, or roller skates. They have only been in the back seat. They are starting from ground zero. Whereas, kids in the U.S. have steering wheels on their car seats.
“So we really have to specialize our training to meet those needs.”
The group has founded Global Driving Solutions, and partnered with the Saudi-based Althelim Group, which specializes in vehicle and industrial-safety training.
“We are the first women they have ever signed a memorandum of understanding with,” Vanderwalker said. “It was history-making not just for them, but for us.”
Last April, Vanderwalker attended a women’s driving forum at the all-female Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University in Dammam.
“In a way, we were there to create excitement about driving as a woman,” Vanderwalker said.
They gave out Frisbees marked with the correct hand positions for the steering wheel, answered questions and, most importantly, got a sense of what the ability to drive means to Saudi women.
“It opens up a whole new world for them,” Vanderwalker said. “This means they don’t need rides everywhere they go. They don’t need rides to pick up their kids from school. It saves the whole country a tremendous amount of money.
“They can work now,” she continued. “They could before, but now their money is not going to pay for a driver. Now that money can come into the household.”
Vanderwalker has lived in King County since she was 16, when her Army family settled on Mercer Island. She became a King County Sheriff’s deputy in 1983 and retired after 25 years. Ten years ago, she started the driving school in Enumclaw, where she and her husband raised three daughters.
“I had spent years as a traffic officer in Federal Way, investigating traffic crashes and giving out tickets, and then was in charge of the Explorer program,” Vanderwalker said. “So when I retired, I looked back at what I liked about police work, and what I didn’t like.
“I didn’t like bad drivers, but I loved teenagers,” she said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to teach teenagers to be good drivers.’ “
It’s not just driver education, she said. It’s saving lives.
“You’re not going to die if you get the date of history wrong,” she said, “but you could die if you don’t understand yielding, if you don’t recognize the stopping distance on wet pavement and you have bald tires.”
Vanderwalker is now creating a curriculum and will return to Saudi Arabia in September for several weeks to train driving instructors. Once things are underway, Vanderwalker plans to move to Saudi Arabia for a year, overseeing the training and driving programs.
That will be a challenge for her — not just the new drivers.
“They are not as regimented as we are here on our roadways,” Vanderwalker said of the drivers in Saudi Arabia. “It was a little hectic. As a driving instructor and a retired police officer, I wanted to write a lot of tickets.”
Many of the Saudi women she will be teaching told her they prefer to learn to drive at night, when there is less traffic.
“It’s going to be hard,” she said. “But it’s history-making. It’s helping these women be able to change their lives.”