Four teens were taken on a frightening ride Saturday, when their driving instructor hit multiple curbs, made unprofessional comments, cursed incessantly and stopped for food during a lesson, according to two of the students in the car.
“I’m happy I’m alive,” said Matt McGeough, 16, of Holbrook.
The driving instructor — who police identified as Russell Cohen, 58, of Ridge — was arrested later the same day and accused of driving drunk after police say he rear-ended another driver on Montauk Trail in Ridge.
But before that, McGeough and another teen, Lila Mabanta, 16, of Holtsville, said he met them and two other teens working toward their driver’s licenses at a parking lot in Suffolk County Community College’s Selden campus to begin their lesson.
Cohen, a substitute instructor working for Suffolk Auto Driving School, behaved oddly almost immediately, they said.
McGeough and Mabanta said McGeough drove for five to 10 minutes while Cohen rode in the front passenger’s seat and three teens were in the back. The teens said Cohen was strangely complimentary toward McGeough and his driving. Mabanta said he made unprofessional comments toward her and another female in the car.
“He called both of us beautiful. The two of us girls felt really uncomfortable by that,” Mabanta said.
Cohen directed McGeough to drive to a diner, and offered to pay for the teens’ food, they said. Once at the diner, Mabanta said Cohen allowed the pupils to grab their cellphones from his trunk, and once he was inside, the four teenagers brainstormed whether to call their parents or police.
However, Cohen came back to the car empty-handed after only a few minutes, cursing, and told McGeough to get out of the driver’s seat because he was going to drive, McGeough said. Although McGeough said he protested, Cohen did take the wheel. The students told Cohen to drive them back to Suffolk County Community College. Once he began driving, Cohen immediately put the students’ lives at risk, hitting a curb at about 50 mph, McGeough said.
That’s when a boy in the back seat suggested the car pull into a nearby McDonald’s in Centerreach, because he said he was hungry, the teens said.
“It was smart. It got us off the road,” McGeough said.
“We jumped out as soon as possible,” Mabanta added.
Once inside the McDonald’s, a manager called police, but Cohen had taken off, the teens said.
Police later caught up to Cohen while on Route 25 and Montauk Trail in Ridge. That’s where Cohen rear-ended his 2012 Honda Accord into a 2008 Honda Civic about 11:45 a.m., police said.
The Civic was being driven by a 29-year-old woman from Shoreham. The woman suffered injuries that were not considered life threatening. She was treated at the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, police said.
Cohen was arrested and charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated and multiple counts of endangering the welfare of a child, police said.
Cohen will be arraigned, at a date that was not specified, at First District Court in Central Islip, police said. He could not be reached for comment Saturday and it was not clear if he had retained an attorney.
Lila's mother Carla Mabanta, 53, said she was grateful neither her daughter nor anybody else was hurt.
“I’m so thankful that it didn’t turn out with a worse outcome,” she said. “I’m so happy he didn’t smash into a tree, anything could have happened.”