Teen drivers in Wisconsin can forgo the road test to get a driver’s license

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Last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused Wisconsin to shut down, DMV administrators had a problem. How could they comply with COVID safety standards while avoiding a massive backlog of driving tests and license renewals?

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation responded by waiving the road test requirement effective May 11, 2020, for 16 and 17 year olds to get their first probationary driver’s license. Pending legislative approval, he wishes to continue to do so.

Instead of taking a road test to obtain a permit, parents aged 16 and 17 can sign a waiver, provided the teenagers have had their teaching permit for at least six months; have completed an approved driver training course; and have completed 30 hours of supervised driving with their parent or adult sponsor.

In return, the 16- or 17-year-old will receive a graduated probationary driver’s license – the standard license for all new drivers under the age of 18, which limits passengers to someone who is not a family member or a qualified adult, and includes restrictions. on night driving.

“We are convinced that we allow the exemption because we have very strict requirements for our new 16 and 17 year old drivers and because the graduated license has additional restrictions and because most students pass the driving test as soon as they graduate. first try, ”said Kristina Boardman, DMV Administrator for the Department of Transportation. “If the parent or guardian is comfortable with their teenager’s ability to drive after driving with them for more than 30 hours, we are ready to accept it.

According to DOT data, 84% of 16 and 17 year olds passed the road test on their first try in 2019. This compares to a 68% success rate for people over 18, who are not. not required to be a driver and who need to hold their learner’s license for only seven days before being allowed to take the road test.

While it is not traditional to obtain a license without a road test, it is not a new consideration.

“There have been legislative proposals over the years to do something similar,” Boardman said. “When we had to immediately think of other options due to the pandemic, we brought up the waiver process again and felt pretty confident because it has been used successfully in other states.”

Boardman said state statutes allow DOT to run pilot programs, such as the waiver process, as well as allow people to renew their licenses online, another program that was implemented during the pandemic. .

This pilot process allows the DOT to temporarily exempt people from the usual requirements while they study the issue, collect data, and report to the Legislature.

After a year of the waiver process, DMV administrators feel comfortable with the data they have collected.

Boardman said the DOT has been monitoring accident statistics as well as traffic violation convictions over the past year for any worrying trends. There were no significant differences, with a 0.4% lower conviction rate and 0.5% lower accident rate for those who took the waiver compared to those in the same bracket. age who passed the test.

What about the students who are not ready?

Mike Putchel, a driving instructor at Drive USA Driving School, said accident statistics do not capture the number of “near misses” that occur. He is concerned that a number of teenagers would normally require additional practice beyond the typical driving school instruction who instead receive waivers to hit the road before they are ready. .

Some Putchel students have told him their parents plan to give them their own version of the practice test before signing the waiver, but he questions a parent’s ability to objectively assess their child’s skills.

“I don’t believe a parent can be impartial,” Putchel said.

He and his fellow instructors have talked about instituting their own road test to be given at the end of school driving lessons.

“If we were to do that, I think the students would have to take the test from a different instructor than their own because there is probably even a certain level of bias,” he said. “There is nothing better than having an impartial person to take the test, as has always been done.”

Although the waiver started over a year ago, 16 and 17 year olds have been able to pass the road test – with masks, roll-up windows where possible and additional sanitary facilities – since the end of the spring 2020 if their parents ask. .

Jeremy Cain, owner of Crash Course Driving School, believes the ability to take the road test gives instructors an opening to address some of their concerns.

“If I could change the waiver in some way, I would like instructors to be able to flag a student and ask them to take a practical exam,” Cain said. “80 or 90% of my students are good after six hours behind the wheel, but with some students they need to practice more. We are already reporting students internally by emailing parents at the end of class , and for some, we recommend that they take the road test. Most parents appreciate that. “

Cain also believes the waiver helps address another driver safety factor – a pre-pandemic backlog that meant adults drove without a license.

“For most of the adults we teach, before the pandemic, they were planning to go two or three months before they could take their road test because there was such a backlog at the DMV even before COVID,” Cain said. “Now they are able to schedule their testing for the week, and from that point of view I’m grateful for the waiver. Many of these people were driving without a license before because they had to find work, they had to drive. because they had life going on. “

What about the contribution of the public?

Putchel is also concerned about what he sees as a lack of transparency in the waiver process – that it was instituted without public input or a vote.

“There has been no public contribution on this,” Putchel said. “This is something that must be voted on because it affects all who share the road with the people who have been given waivers.”

Boardman said there was no end date set for the pilot as the ministry strives to collect enough data to ensure it has valid results to submit to the Legislature. when required to do so by the end of the year.

A pilot cannot be made permanent without a vote from the Legislature – which could happen since Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget includes a measure to make the waiver permanent.

If that happens, Boardman said the DOT is open to feedback from driving instructors on how to improve the program.

“Some driver training schools have expressed some concerns, and of course they are rooted in safety,” Boardman said. “I think their concern is that some people are not ready to drive independently and they notice it. We are definitely open to the ability to flag teens if they need to take the test or need more training.

Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram on @wisfamilyjs or Facebook on WisconsinFamily.

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