Wisconsin likely to drop road tests for teenage drivers
Wisconsin is on the verge of removing a requirement that has been a singular rite of passage for generations: the driving test for teenagers.
In Madison, the Republican-controlled joint finance committee last week approved the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to continue its road-test waiver program for Wisconsin’s 16 and 17-year-olds who have passed all driver training requirements. If approved as part of the budget by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, the current pilot program would become a permanent part of how the DMV grants licenses effective July 1.
The DOT began testing the waivers in mid-May last year, citing its desire to reduce interactions between its employees and members of the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministry officials also said they hoped the waivers would allow DMVs to focus on the backlog of adult driving tests that had built up amid the pandemic.
Under state law, people over the age of 18 only need a multiple choice knowledge test before taking the driving test. The DMV said these people cannot waive their driving test because they are not required to take a driving course and drive training with an instructor.
Since June of last year, the waiver program has erased nearly half of regular DMV appointments. Parents waived 50,000 appointments for their student drivers, leaving the DMV offices to handle about 58,000 appointments in total.
“It’s definitely a workload difference,” said Kristina Boardman, administrator of the Wisconsin DMV, of the changes in the nomination request. “People who don’t have a driver education have a higher failure rate… so the number of tests is focused on the audience that may need the assistance the most and we can put our energy into it.
According to figures from the DMV, 84% of 16 and 17 year olds in the state passed the driving test on their first test in 2019. This is up from 68% of those over 18.
Student drivers who wish to obtain their driver’s license before the age of 18 will still have to complete other requirements, including 30 hours of supervised driving with parents and 9 to 12 hours of driving training with a licensed instructor. Even if these conditions are met, the decision to forgo the driving test would still rest with the parents of the driver. Since the start of the pilot, around 85-90% of parents have chosen to forgo testing their teenager.
The DMV continued to monitor accident rates associated with young drivers. Youth who waived were 0.5% less likely than those who took the driving test to be involved in an accident. They were also 0.4% less likely to be convicted than those who took the driving tests. According to Boardman, the most recent figures from the DMV show a small but statistically significant difference in car crash and conviction rates, meaning that student drivers who did not pass the driving test were on average safer than those who did.
Boardman said the data could suggest that parents who are less certain of their children’s driving skills have signed their children to take the driving test.
“It tells us that parents take (their responsibility) seriously,” she said.
Related: Because of COVID-19, 16 and 17 year olds do not need driving tests to get their driver’s license. The Wisconsin DMV wants to make this permanent.
Still, some disagree with the timing and rationale behind the policy change.
According to data compiled by the National Security Council, an Illinois-based nonprofit focused on workplace and road safety, road fatality rates rose 9% in Wisconsin and 8% nationally from 2019 to 2020. Tara Leystra Ackerman, the council’s head of state government affairs, said those rates were the biggest annual increase in at least a decade. Road fatalities have also increased by 15% among drivers aged 16 to 24, according to council data.
Over the past year, the National Safety Council has opposed temporary waiver programs similar to Wisconsin’s in states like Georgia and North Carolina.
Yet Wisconsin would not be the first state to permanently adopt waivers.
Other states in the Midwest, such as Iowa and Nebraska, have exemptions for qualified student drivers. Iowa law states that a parent can waive their child’s driving test if the child completes driving school. Under the same law, an instructor or parent can request a test.
The council said states should maintain existing road tests as an additional safeguard against reckless driving.
“We want to… maintain the status quo until we can find a better way to move forward rather than doing things that could potentially make the road less safe,” said Leystra Ackerman. “If you don’t see a benefit in it, you need to improve it and make it more comprehensive to make sure… instructors can have the right test to identify unsafe driving behavior. ”
Some driving instructors in the Milwaukee area share the council’s concerns.
Stevie Davis, a driving instructor at Easy Method School in Milwaukee, is concerned that parents will approve the waiver for young drivers who are not yet ready to drive on the road.
Davis said he believes young drivers don’t always understand the dangers of driving, so he teaches his students to be hyper aware of defensive driving techniques such as changing lanes to avoid a rear collision. Road tests, he said, require students to demonstrate that they can drive responsibly.
“We are trying to get back to normal. Normal is to take your driving test, to be validated by the examiner. … If you can’t pass a 15 minute test, how are you going to be able to handle driving on the street every day, ”Davis said.
Jeremy Cain, owner of Crash Course driving school in Milwaukee, sees the pros and cons of the proposed change.
Like Davis, Cain is concerned that some parents may waive the road test requirement for their child even though Crash Course Driving recommends otherwise. Cain hopes the state will allow driving schools to take away the opportunity for unqualified students to forgo the driving test.
Unlike Iowa law, the Wisconsin proposal does not allow driving instructors to revoke a parent’s choice to forgo the driving test. Boardman said the DMV will continue conversations with driving instructors to receive feedback on ways the program can be improved.
However, Cain says the adult drivers at his school have benefited from the change in waiver program. Prior to the implementation of the waiver program, some of its mature students had to wait months for a road test, which put them in a “difficult situation”. He added that since the program came into effect, it has become easier for these students to take a practical exam.
“Now what I see is that when I work with my students, we are able to schedule them within two to three weeks, if not sooner,” he said.
Cain said parents ultimately make the final decision for their child, and his driving school’s role is to help them make an informed decision.
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