Learning to drive in the time of COVID-19
The pandemic could have long-term implications for the safety of young drivers
Avery Burton wrote on his calendar the day the Wisconsin DMV stopped offering road tests “dead cold”: March 18, 2020. Burton is president of the Wisconsin Professional Driving School Association and the owner of Trinity Driving School in Hortonville, Wis. “Imagine you’re the student, that you got a road test scheduled for March 20 or whatever, and they just pull the plug,” he said. “Yeah, I had a lot of upset families.”
To keep DMV workers and driver’s license applicants from passing coronavirus to each other in the close quarters of a vehicle, Wisconsin instituted a road test waiver pilot program for 16- and 17-year-olds in May 2020. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation website, teens can apply for a waiver to skip the driver’s test if they have had a permit for at least six months, completed driver’s ed and 30 hours of supervised driving, and a parent or guardian attests to their driving ability.
Nearly 50,000 Wisconsin residents have since opted for the waiver and received their licenses, the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau said. In June 2021, Wisconsin Assembly members removed wording from the budget that would have made the waiver permanent. But driving instructors say they haven’t received any official information on when the program will end.
The pandemic challenged states to find a balance between public health and road safety. In a 2018 report, the most recent year with available data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that even though only 5.3 percent of licensed drivers are teens, they make up 8 percent of drivers in fatal crashes. According to AAA, the risk of new teen drivers being in a fatal crash is triple the risk for adults.
Travis Kowalski has taught driver’s education for about a decade and runs the Mississippi Valley Driving School in Holmen, Wis. Out of hundreds of teens, he knows about six who took the road driver’s test instead of choosing the waiver. He worried teens may not actually fulfill all the supervised driving hours, noting parents could theoretically sign off on their child’s license even if the teen only completed the required six hours with an instructor. Kowalski said the waiver could undermine motivation for teens to become good drivers: “Think of the seriousness that you would take into a class if you came into a math class, ‘Hey we’re going to teach algebra, but we’re never going to test you on this.’”
Other states, such as North Carolina and Mississippi, also instituted road test waivers during the pandemic. Johanna Newman, owner of Drive! Driving School in Mooresville, N.C., said the waivers are still available, but the process is confusing and unpredictable and she isn’t sure when the DMV will stop offering them.
Nebraska offered a road test waiver even before the COVID-19 pandemic as long as the student took driver’s education and passed an instructor-administered drive test. Anna Diederich is a driving instructor at Cornhusker Driving School in Omaha, Neb., a business her dad started in 1966. Diederich feels that instructor-administered tests work better than DMV testing. “We’re not behind the wheel with them for just 10 minutes,” she said. “We’re behind the wheel with them for hours, and we see where they struggle and we see what they need to work on.”
While Burton is concerned about liability implications if instructors are asked to do road tests, Diederich said that has never been an issue: “At the end of the day we’re following what we need to do.”
A pre-recorded message at the Wisconsin DMV said “an end date for the waiver pilot has not yet been determined.” Burton said the Wisconsin Department of Transportation told him it didn’t have a definite end date for the waiver, but pilot programs typically last one year.
Burton said the waiver sometimes complicates instructors’ jobs. He worries that parents and teens don’t feel enough pressure to make sure the teen is ready for the road: “In a way, that should scare all of us.”
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