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Leap of faith put him in driver's seat

Chris Duquin, 36, bought Steven's Driving School in June 2005. The business that started on the city's East Side to teach European immigrants was failing and needed a fresh start.

So did Duquin.

After four years on the staff of Erie County Legislature, Duquin was at a career crossroads. He had already studied to be a priest -- earning a master's degree in theology -- before he realized he wanted to marry and have children. Today he is married to a Buffalo schoolteacher and they have three children, ages 5, 4 and 2.

His driving school -- with 10 training sites, 22 instructors and a fleet of instructional vehicles -- is thriving, too.

>People Talk: Your gamble paid off.

Chris Duquin: It was a huge leap of faith, from a county salary with health benefits to absolutely nothing. We bought a driving school that had three broken-down Chevy Corsicas, one of which had a broken gas line which the former owner sprayed with Febreze before sending it out on a road test. It had three instructors, five run-down locations.

>PT: Why didn't priesthood work?

CD: I grew up in St. Greg's parish. My mom's a Catholic author. I was an altar boy, and when I went to Canisius, I lived for four years at the John Paul II residence in North Buffalo. I went to Christ the King Seminary for three years. After my third year, I just realized I wanted to get married. I always wanted to be a priest. I wanted to know what a priest does, but I left and got a job at the Erie County Legislature.

>PT: What kind of driver are you?

CD: I'm a relatively good driver. My last accident, I left the car in neutral and it rolled into a parked car.

>PT: Describe the art of driving.

CD: There are three parts: Observation -- seeing what's going on around you -- judgment and execution.

Communication, obviously, plays into it with students who don't speak English. We actually partner with a church on a refugee driving program. A majority of the people in that program now are from Iraq, Iran, Syria. We put translators in the back seat.

>PT: Is 16 too young to drive?

CD: Sixteen is not too young to start learning how to drive. You're developed enough physically, emotionally and mentally to be responsible at something like driving an automobile. Driving becomes a metaphor for entering into society.

>PT: How has technology affected your business?

CD: It solves a lot of problems, though I'm not sure I like back-up cameras. I want to see people looking out the window to make sure there's nothing there. Texting is a huge issue. You can't text and drive, but technology will solve that with talk to text. We've already proven people can talk in a car.

>PT: What about a driver who can talk on the phone, eat a hamburger, hold coffee and drive -- at the same time?

CD: If you look at the statistics, teenagers get in the most distracted driving accidents. They aren't well-versed or practiced at driving. But when you're middle-aged and you still have all your faculties, if you can execute and multitask, you can still be an OK driver. Does that mean you're a safe driver? No, and it shows.

>PT: Can you change a flat tire?

CD: Yes. I can change an engine. I bought a 1977 Corrvette off the side of the road on Route 16. I wanted to learn how to rebuild an engine so I tore it out and put it back together and it ran.

>PT: What's a good driver-ed car?

CD: A Ford Taurus. Sizewise, they're like little tanks. They drive extremely well, but don't get very good gas mileage so we've moved to Ford Focuses. They're smaller and easier to control and they get 30 miles to the gallon.

>PT: Do the cars take a beating?

CD: The only accidents we have had with students in the car have been rear-end collisions where people have run into the back of us -- other than an occasional mailbox or tree that we have bumped.

>PT: What do you think about roundabouts?

CD: Love them. There's a great book that came out called "Traffic," and the No.1 thing it talked about is that the more things going on and the tighter the space -- the safer you are as a driver because it demands your attention.

>PT: What's the turnover rate for instructors?

CD: New York State requires a written test, road test, sign test. It's not easy, but it's not becoming a surgeon. We have a lot of people who apply, but who do not make it through the whole process. It's a difficult job. Can you imagine being in a car with a kid who doesn't know how to drive, who is trying to kill you every day but at the same time is extremely appreciative that you are teaching them something new?

>PT: Anything else on your mind??

CD: We have to get rid of the blue card. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is writing about it. Almost every other state has gotten rid of an exemption for 17-year-olds to drive wherever whenever they want. Seventeen-year-olds are not responsible enough. When you're out driving for fun with your friends, that's when trouble starts.