FRANKFURT — When the economic victims of the coronavirus crisis are counted, probably not many tears will be shed for the driving instructors of the world, especially in Germany, where getting a license is a grueling and costly rite of passage that few people remember fondly.
Yet the driving school industry is a microcosm of how the pandemic has brought some service professions to a standstill with often devastating impact on a small but unexpectedly essential niche of the economy.
Driver education is a big deal in Germany, reflecting the role that cars play in the national psyche as well as an obsession with formal training. It is mandatory for prospective drivers and notoriously difficult, requiring more than 20 hours of classroom instruction and often double that much time on the road with a professional instructor.
Like restaurants and hair salons, driving schools can’t function without social contact, and are being pushed to the brink after lockdowns forced them to close, erasing their sales overnight. Though a few German states such as Hessen have allowed driving schools to resume if drivers and instructors wear masks and take other precautions, training is still paused in much of the country.
“There is no money coming in at all,” said Christine Timmer, owner of a driving school in Munich that caters to English-speaking expatriates, whose driver’s licenses are often not valid in Germany. “I will be able to manage for two to three months, but after that I really don’t know.”
More than a quarter of German driving schools believe that the coronavirus crisis will push them into bankruptcy, according to a survey by the Moving International Road Safety Association, an organization in Berlin that lobbies on behalf of driving schools. That would translate into roughly 10,000 lost jobs. It foreshadows how the virus will force a brutal culling of many kinds of small businesses.
With instruction at a standstill, the pipeline of new pizza delivery drivers is temporarily shut off, as is the supply of neophyte car buyers when the suffering German auto industry needs all the customers it can get.
As in many professions, the virus has prompted driving schools to re-examine assumptions about how they will conduct business when a semblance of normality returns.
Among German driving instructors, who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands, there is a furious debate about whether classroom instruction could be conducted online — a prospect that could have allowed the schools to keep operating through the lockdown. To get a license, applicants must attend 14 classroom sessions lasting 90 minutes each, typically held in a driving school’s crowded storefront premises.
Frank Dreier, who operates a driving school in Bad Nauheim, a city north of Frankfurt, said he didn’t think online courses would make much difference. Students would still have to wait until it was safe to resume road training, he said.
“We don’t see a big advantage,” said Mr. Dreier, who is also president of a driving instructors’ association in the state of Hessen.
The national association of driving teachers is against the idea, pointing out that much of the classroom instruction consists of impressing on young people, who are allowed to buy beer at 16 but not drive alone until they are 18, the gravity of their responsibility when behind the wheel.
There are even a few murmurs about making it easier to get a license.
Germany is a country where it is illegal for a person to repair a tire, manufacture an accordion or blow glass without having been certified as a “meister,” which often requires years of apprenticeship and training. Getting a driver’s license is almost as demanding.
Students must take a first-aid course and spend as much time practicing behind the wheel as the instructor deems necessary. Road training costs an average of about 43 euros an hour, or $47. Including classroom training, the total to get a license is usually around €2,000.
To pass the written test, aspiring drivers must memorize 1,000 possible questions and answers on the subtleties of right-of-way rules, road sign hieroglyphics and the mathematical formulas that predict how long it takes a vehicle to stop at a given speed.
The failure rate is high. Of the 1.8 million written tests administered last year, fewer than two-thirds earned a passing score. (Applicants are allowed to retake the test.)
The temporary moratorium on driver training has economic consequences. Driver’s licenses are a prerequisite for many kinds of jobs. A delay in getting a license translates into a delay in earning money. One of Mr. Dreier’s students is scheduled to begin training as a police officer this year but would have to postpone if he can’t get his license in time. (The student could not be reached for comment.)
Immigrants and refugees from outside Europe, for whom driving a taxi or a delivery truck is often an entree to the work force, typically have to go through a driving school because Germany doesn’t recognize licenses from their countries. Driving school shutdowns present one more hurdle for immigrants trying to integrate into society.
Ms. Timmer, the Munich instructor, said she thought the obstacle course for aspiring drivers had become too onerous. “You don’t have to be such a pro,” she said. “I think it is too much.”
But opponents say rigorous training is one reason Germany has one of the lowest rates of road fatalities in the world. That may come as a surprise to anyone who has driven on a German autobahn, stretches of which often have no speed limits, and where many drivers seem to be channeling their inner Roman gladiator. Statistically, though, an American is three times more likely to die from a traffic accident than a German.
“People are afraid that if they make it easier, the death rate would rise,” said Jochen Klima, chairman of a driving instructor’s association in the state of Baden-Württemberg. “That’s a taboo issue.”
Mr. Klima and other industry representatives are pressing the government to let the driving schools operate again using precautions such as face masks and plastic separators between instructors and student drivers.
Baden-Württemberg and some other states are already allowing driving schools to continue training ambulance, truck and bus drivers, who are urgently needed.
Mr. Dreier, located in one of the few states that have allowed training of beginning drivers to resume, said he began gradually reopening his business Tuesday. “I’m still solvent,” he said Thursday. “It was an ordeal.”