As a child, Sofia Hotlen never saw either of her parents drive a car — there was always a chauffeur.
Raised in a wealthy family in Santiago, Chile, few could have guessed that Hotlen would go on to own a driving school for more than 30 years in the foothills of Northern California. To date, her school — aptly named Sofia Hotlen Driving School — has taught more than 60,000 new drivers the rules of the road.
With offices in Grass Valley and Auburn, the school is known for taking the extra step of equipping their beginner’s car with both a brake and gas pedal on the passenger’s side of the vehicle. As a result, Hotlen says she’s never had a student collide with another vehicle.
Hotlen’s background is anything but typical. In her teens, her parents sent her to study at the University of Geneva Switzerland, then to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. She then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at California State University, San Jose and a master’s degree from California State University, Sacramento. While living in San Francisco, she met her late husband, Albert Hotlen, then moved to the foothills in 1988.
Hotlen says her background in teaching, which includes high school and working as a Spanish instructor to adults, has been an asset when it comes to teaching new drivers, many of whom are extremely anxious.
“In the beginning, I was incredibly nervous about driving, which stopped me from gaining independence,” said Rose Carson, 21, of Nevada City. “Sofia was very patient and understanding. We started out driving around residential areas then worked up to freeways. If my anxiety was really bad, she was always very patient, pulling over and such.”
“Rose had so many fears, now she is happy driving around,” said Hotlen, with a smile. “I love young people — I enjoyed them. Maybe I should have been a psychologist.”
FROM THE BEGINNING
Drivers training is a “behind the wheel” instruction for people who already have a permit to drive, regardless of age. The course of instruction is a complete and thorough set of driving tasks designed to make the learning process both fun and challenging. First time students under 18 years of age will require three two-hour sessions over a minimum of six months.
The Sofia Hotlen Driving School has a very structured approach to driver training, said Hotlen, using the IPDE (Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute) method. In addition to basic maneuvers, carefully-vetted instructors also focus intently on defensive driving.
The first class includes basic handling of the vehicle, including turns, backing up and some traffic — if a student appears ready. After completing roughly 15 to 20 hours of driving experience, the student is then ready for the second lesson, where the student experiences traffic, the freeway, parking up and down hills and parking in a parking lot.
They also learn about the various rights of way when it comes to other drivers. The third lesson takes place in preparation of the test at the DMV, and reviews possible weak points in driving that are specific to each driver.
“We test them thoroughly and tell parents what they need to practice to pass the test and be a good driver,” said Hotlen. “We also sometimes suggest that a student take more lessons if we see they need more practice.”
CUSTOM DRIVER’S ED
Separate from driver training, “driver education” is a four day, 28-hour class that meets DMV requirements. Classroom instruction consists of lecture, text book study, video, and written tests. Upon completion of this course, students should be ready to take the DMV written test for a driver’s permit.
“We have a pay-as-you-go method, which is more convenient for parents — they can make the payments at their convenience,” said Hotlen. “Classes are spread out over a six month period, every month or two, until they are ready to take the driving test.”
The school also offers customized instruction for adults and seniors, as well as an online traffic school. After completing the program, participants receive a certificate in the mail.
Clearly Hotlen and her carefully-selected instructors are a rare breed — those who enjoy repeatedly stepping into a car with a new driver behind the wheel.
“It feels good to know I’ve done a good job and taught them well,” said Hotlen. “People at the DMV have told me they know who my students are because they do well on the tests. I love teaching people to drive, especially the teens. If I ever retire, I’m really going to miss them.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.