“I need my license so I can get the fuck off the bus.”
Rob Swinton (they/them), owner of Safe Pass driving school in Lyndhurst, shared this direct and forthright quote said to them from a trans driving student who turned to Rob for help.
Parallel parking isn’t the only stressful part of Driver’s Ed for LGBTQ+ students. The risk of harassment in classroom instruction or alone in a car with an instructor brings an entirely new layer of distraction to driving. But driving can also mean freedom from bullying on public transportation, as well as access to a larger queer community, so the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Luckily for northeast Ohio queer would-be drivers, there’s a hidden gem that offers the best solution: a safe space for the whole you and a focus on safe driving.
“We try to take away every reason for fear and look to replace it with empathy and authenticity, a come as you are approach,” said Swinton.
When asked about Safe Pass’s beginnings, Swinton said they wanted to “set a new narrative for this area when it comes to not only the safe driving piece, but how students should be experiencing driver’s ed.” Safe Pass primarily serves teens, especially in the summer, but also teaches local adults in the Cleveland area to drive safely.
Starting with a team of two—Swinton and their wife Kristen—Safe Pass has grown into a highly rated driving school serving students from nearly fifty local high schools and colleges, and also a de facto community hub for LGBTQ+ students and staff.
Safe Pass often serves students who haven’t passed their driver’s test or haven’t had good experiences with traditional driving schools in the past. One reviewer, Jeb Bugos, said “I’ve taken driving lessons from a lot of different places, and Safe Pass was by far my best experience.” Bugos also added, “This is also definitely the most LGBT friendly driving school I’ve been to, they asked my pronouns and chosen name when I first booked my lessons.”
Swinton says that some students commute up to half an hour to access the more comfortable learning and driving experience at Safe Pass.
“One of our students only has one local driving school available, and the instructor is openly transphobic,” said Swinton. “So she drives 25 minutes to come here.”
The impacts of COVID-19 on driving instruction
Operating a driving school during a global pandemic has had its share of challenges, but Swinton actually doesn’t recommend online instruction for the classroom portion of drivers’ education. In fact, it’s cheaper to get the in-person instruction package from Safe Pass, incentivizing the classroom experience over an online course.
“It’s a more holistic experience,” explained Swinton. “There’s a partnership that has to form between the instructor and student from start to finish.”
Rob was of course worried about reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission when Safe Pass opened its doors. “We were driving with the windows down, doing temperature checks and masking, disinfecting between students.”
COVID-19 actually had a hand in the creation of Safe Pass in the first place, as Swinton lost their position as a part-time driving instructor in early 2020, yet couldn’t shake their desire to help students learn to drive. With a background in higher education administration and years of experience as a driving instructor, Swinton and their partner made the dream come true by opening up their own school.
A safe space for employees
Attracting LGBTQ+ clientele is only part of Safe Pass’s growing reputation as a queer business — having a staff who all identify as LGBTQ+ adults is a huge part of its cultural impact.
“It was not and never has been the goal, but it’s just a fact,” said Swinton, describing the school’s completely LGBTQ+ staff.
Swinton met one of Safe Pass’s first employees, Amanda, in the Cleveland Bi+ Network, when she was looking for a job where she could keep her blue hair.
“I know what it’s like to have to go to work and mute yourself,” said Swinton. “So if you’re the owner, why would you create a place where people have to do that? No one has to mute themselves here.”
Safe Pass has grown to a team of six, now able to serve more students than ever.
Em Needles, a Safe Pass instructor said that the Safe Pass team regularly checks in with each other about their lives and what’s going on – something that rarely happens at her day job, further emphasizing the driving school’s focus on community.
“Rob is the heart of Safe Pass, and they’re really aware of what it’s like to work in bad corporate workplaces,” Needles said. “They’re super aware of keeping their employees happy, which shouldn’t be a revolutionary thing, but it is.”
“It was not and never has been the goal, but it’s just a fact,” said Swinton, describing the school’s growing staff, all of whom identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
As for Swinton, they are certainly focused on successfully shepherding students through the driving test. But they also know that this is about so much more than 3-point turns and navigating 4-way stop signs.
“It really doesn’t matter that we’re a driving school. It’s about the ways we contribute to our community,” said Swinton. “This took a village.” 🔥
- Safe Pass is always taking applications, so if you’re looking for a job where you can be your authentic self, get in touch by visiting their contact page.