Georgia revises driving tests amid pandemic

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has revised road tests for driver's licenses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has revised road tests for driver's licenses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A driving test is a rite of passage for teenagers seeking a driver’s license. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, the test of driving skills isn’t what it used to be.

Social-distancing requirements mean examiners can’t ride in cars with applicants. So thousands of teens are taking the tests on Georgia Department of Driver Services road courses, not on public roads under real-world conditions.

The department says examiners still observe the applicants and grade their performance as they always have.

“The road test consists of the exact same requirements/maneuvers using the same scoring sheet as with previously administered road tests,” the DDS said in written responses to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Parents say they understand the precautions are necessary. But some find the driving test lacking.

“It’s really not real-world,” said Cherokee County resident Travis Pinson, whose 16-year-old daughter will take the driving exam in September.

The revised driving test is just one way the DDS has changed the way it does business during the pandemic.

Last spring, the agency granted extensions for renewing driver’s licenses to hundreds of thousands of people. The agency encouraged customers to renew their licenses online and required appointments for in-person services at its 67 customer service centers. It recently began allowing seniors to submit the results of required visions exams online, if the exam was completed by a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist.

The driving test has posed special problems at a time when social distancing is crucial to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Examiners can’t stay 6 feet from drivers when they’re sitting next to them in the passenger seat.

In March the agency suspended road testing for driver’s license applicants. Then, on April 23, an executive order by Gov. Brian Kemp allowed teenagers and other applicants to skip the driving test. About 20,000 applicants took advantage of the waiver to get their licenses.

That move drew criticism from safety experts, who worried about turning untested teen drivers loose on the road. In May Kemp issued a new order requiring those who had received the waiver to take the test after all. It gave them until Sept. 30 to pass the test.

The DDS says it has administered tests to about 13,000 applicants who received the waiver. Third-party testers have administered an additional 3,000 tests.

It’s unclear how many of those applicants passed the test. The DDS says some of those who received waivers have voluntarily downgraded their driver’s licenses back to learner’s permits.

But amid the pandemic, the test itself has been revised.

Peter Hortman’s 16-year-old son took the driving test in June at a DDS office in Douglas County. He said the staff was helpful, the wait wasn’t long and the process was efficient. But he thought it was a “silly test.”

Hortman and his son were in the car while the examiner stood nearby and directed him to parallel park and back into a parking space. And that was it.

“She was very helpful and, dare I say, very lenient,” Hortman said. “She did what she could to help him get through it without her having to be in the car.”

Pinson expects a similar experience when his daughter takes the test.

“There’s no driving portion,” he said. “The parent stays in the car. They’re social distancing. The windows stay down and they’re yelling instructions.”

DDS officials declined to be interviewed about the changes. But in a statement to the AJC, they said the agency has “conducted over 57,000 road tests since April 2020 and has safely served more than one million customers” since Kemp declared a pandemic state of emergency March 14.

The DDS said requirements for current driving tests are the same as before, with some exceptions.

A parent or responsible adult will be in the car, while the examiner gives instructions and monitors the driver from outside the vehicle. The tests are done on a DDS course instead of on public roads. The agency said drivers must meet the same requirements as in the past.

Like the pandemic, it’s unclear how long use of the revised driving test will last.

“We will evaluate it as the COVID threat changes,” the agency said. “For now, it is the safest method for customers and driver examiners.”

Hortman thinks the DDS is doing the best it can under the circumstances.

“I’m glad that he actually had to take a test,” he said of his son. “It seemed pretty silly that they could just get a waiver and not do anything.”