Suspended Road Tests Give Teens Easier Route to Licenses

By: - December 17, 2020 12:00 am

A 14-year-old girl in Guttenberg, Iowa, works with her driver’s education instructor. Several other states are allowing teens to get their licenses without having to take a road test. Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via The Associated Press

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.

But road test waivers and suspensions 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 backseat,” 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.”

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.“

Safety Concerns

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.”

Teen drivers often struggle with tasks such as turning left, gauging gaps in traffic, merging and driving the right speed for conditions, according to the National Safety Council’s Vogel.

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 research 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.

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.