Teens around U.S. find easier road to licenses

Jenni Bergal

Teens across the country waiting anxiously to get their driver’s licenses were disappointed when most state motor vehicle departments suspended road testing for weeks — and sometimes for months — after the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March.

While many states have since returned to road testing, several others have opted to waive that requirement and allow teens to get their license anyway, at least for a time.

That’s only fair, state officials say. The teens typically have completed many hours of classroom instruction and supervised driving time. They need a license to get to jobs and help their families by running errands. In some states, new drivers ages 18 and over also can get waivers. The biggest impact, though, is on teenagers, since among new drivers, they take most of the road tests.

Because of the pandemic, some states are allowing teens to get their licenses without having to take a road test.

But road test waivers and suspensions — which aren’t in place in Michigan — have alarmed some highway safety organizations, because teens — inexperienced behind the wheel — have the highest crash rates of any age group. Teens’ driving abilities should be assessed by an impartial examiner take off on their own, safety advocates say.

“At a moment of national crisis like this, safety can’t take a back seat,” Maureen Vogel, spokesperson for the National Safety Council, an Itasca, Illinois-based organization focused on eliminating preventable deaths, said in an interview with Stateline.

“We understand the states’ intentions were good. A lot of this was driven by trying to find solutions to the pandemic. But we feel that for safety’s sake, when it comes to our most vulnerable and crash-prone drivers, removing any guardrails around their licensure is ill-advised.”

The issue of waiving or suspending road tests for young people during the pandemic has been fraught with controversy in some states.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order in April that allowed most people applying for a regular driver’s license to get one without having to take the road test during the state of emergency. That included teens who held a learner’s permit for year and a day and had no violations.

The order quickly drew fire from highway safety advocates.

Testing a teen’s skills at the motor vehicles department is important, said Sarah Casto, a driving instructor from Monticello, Georgia, who launched an online petition asking Kemp to reverse his decision. It attracted 2,550 signatures, many from parents.

“Having a road test is the last stop for a professional to see if teenagers can make decisions on their own without help,” Casto said. “I was scared for the safety of the drivers and the rest of the people on the road.”

Less than three weeks after his first order, Kemp issued a new one, requiring waiver recipients to take a road test. By then, about 20,000 teens had a waiver.

States such as North Carolina are “moving forward with something that feels nice and expedient but may not be safe,” said Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Winston co-wrote an op-ed in June asking Cooper to “pump the brakes” on eliminating road tests.

States instead could administer simulated driving tests and computer-based hazard awareness tests that would help screen out drivers likely to fail a road test, she said.

An October Health Affairs study co-authored by Winston found that a simulation program in Ohio could potentially save thousands of examiner hours that would have been spent on failed road exams each year.

But Steve Abbott, a North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesperson, said his state’s no-road-test program is working well.

“We are able to get licenses to qualified drivers, in turn enabling them to get to jobs, to school and to help their family do errands and assist in other roles,” he said, noting that the teens have considerable driving experience, including at night.

Between June and the end of November, 55,532 teens received the waiver, which must be approved by a parent or guardian, Abbott said.

“We had so many students and their parents upset because the teen was old enough and ready to get a license and they couldn’t get one because the road tests were shut down,” he said.

The program doesn’t have an end date, but teen drivers who have gotten the limited license still will have to take a road test to get a permanent one, he added.

This summer, Mississippi also started waiving road tests for teens with a learner’s permit and those over age 18 applying for a regular license for the first time.

Mississippi doesn’t plan to reinstate road testing, Vignes said, noting that the waivers have been effective and have reduced the staff’s risk of exposure to COVID-19.

But the National Safety Council’s Vogel cautioned that it may not be wise for states to rely on parent affidavits. Most parents, she said, are honest about how much time teens are practicing driving — but not all of them.

“There is certainly the chance they can falsify them,” she said. “A road test provides another check and balance. You’ve reported you’ve gotten all that practice. So now let’s see it.“

Every state requires some type of graduated driver’s licensing for those under 18. It starts with a permit phase, in which teens practice their skills, usually with supervision. Then it moves to a probationary or intermediate phase, in which they have restrictions, such as not driving late at night or not having multiple teen passengers. In the last phase, young drivers become fully licensed.

These types of programs, which vary widely from state to state, have helped improve safety for teen drivers.

“They have not done this before,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, a senior director at the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. “Driving isn’t just teaching them how to break and accelerate and steer.”

The fatal crash rate for 16- and 17-year-olds is about three times that of drivers 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group funded by auto insurance companies. In 2018, 2,121 people were killed in crashes involving a teen driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Road tests help weed out teens who may be too nervous to take it or don’t think they’re ready, said Rebecca Weast, a research scientist at the insurance institute.

But supporters of deferring road tests during the pandemic say teens typically have gotten lots of experience practicing with a parent or guardian.

“New drivers are very conscientious. They know the rules. They’ve just been through the process,” said Pennsylvania Democratic state Rep. Melissa Shusterman, who sponsored a bill in June that would have temporarily suspended road tests for teens for the duration of a disaster emergency such as the pandemic.

“We would have been giving them the ability to get on the road, pick up the milk and eggs, help the senior citizen who needed something or go to their job at a grocery store or as a volunteer firefighter,” she said.