The Minnesota Department of Vehicle Services (DVS) on Friday will begin the daunting process of rescheduling behind-the-wheel exams for would-be drivers whose road tests were canceled when most state services shut down in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
DVS scrubbed more than 13,000 driving exams during the eight weeks Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-home order was in effect, further stressing the testing system that had struggled to keep up even before COVID-19. Before the pandemic, wait times often reached 60 days or more and exam stations were so full that many people booked appointments in distant places to get in.
On top of the canceled appointments, the DVS is bracing for a new surge of applications as long lines formed at service centers that on Tuesday resumed knowledge tests and accepting applications for driver’s licenses. The agency estimates it will need to give more than 111,500 road exams by the end of the year as it makes up missed tests and accommodates demand from new applicants seeking Class D and commercial licenses, according to a DVS memo released last week.
To catch up, the DVS aims to give 300 road tests every weekday starting Tuesday, with priority given to those whose tests were canceled. Testing stations will open at 7 a.m., an hour earlier than in the past, and stay open until 5:30 p.m., an hour later than before, said DVS spokeswoman Megan Leonard.
The actual number of exams will vary based on the availability of examiners at the 15 stations where tests will be given. The DVS plans to ask examiners who have moved on to other jobs or retired to come back and help give tests for up to 6 months, the memo said.
How rescheduling will work
Drivers who had tests scheduled between March 13 and 31 will get an e-mail Friday telling them to go to drive.mn.gov to reschedule. They will see a list of appointments available for the next six months at 15 exam stations across the state.
On Sunday, a similar e-mail will be sent to drivers who had tests scheduled in April. Those who had May appointments will get instructions Tuesday. Starting June 1, appointments will be open to the public, Leonard said.
It’s all been frustrating for Angela Vanden Busch’s 16-year-old daughter, who had an appointment scheduled in April before it was called off.
“My daughter was really excited to take her road test as all of her friends already have their licenses, and they’ve been driving her around for more than a year,” said the south metro resident. “She’s very unhappy. She could have had her license by now, which I’m sure is how a lot of other kids are feeling. This issue is not just affecting 16-year-olds; there are adults who also need to take road tests.”
Things are a bit more complicated for Vanden Busch. This winter, she tried to get an appointment for her daughter in Eagan in April, but the station was full. She booked an appointment in Wabasha, though it was nearly 80 miles away, as it was the nearest exam station with an opening.
When the state shut down services, Vanden Busch rescheduled even though her daughter’s April appointment had not been officially canceled. The first appointment she could find was July 22, five hours away in East Grand Forks. She took it. Now Vanden Busch fears her daughter, who originally had an April appointment, won’t get priority and will have a longer wait. Still, she thinks the state’s going about rebooking tests in the right way.
“I think that’s a fair plan,” Vanden Busch said. “But it might not be the best scenario for my daughter as I inadvertently made the mistake of proactively rebooking a July 22 date once the shutdown was announced, but before the official cancellation of her April appointment.”
Test takers have faced difficulty in securing slots in recent years due to a growing number of prospective drivers and shortages of examiners. The state has 102 examiners, with 15 positions unfilled. Tests grew from 145,900 in 2018 to 157,600 last year. About 25% of 16-year-olds and 34% of 17-year-olds fail road tests each year and require retesting, according to the DVS.
As road tests resume, the DVS warns they will take longer due to enhanced screening, sanitizing and other precautions needed to safeguard examiners and examinees. To keep on schedule, the DVS has temporarily dropped the equipment inspection part of the exam, which typically caused about 5% of applicants to fail. Examiners also will stop a test as soon as an applicant makes an “automatic fail” error, such as violating a law, or has enough deductions to fail.
Unlike Wisconsin and Georgia, which suspended the road test requirement for license applicants during the crisis, Minnesota kept current rules requiring the road test.
“Driving is rite of passage, but it has to be safe rite of passage,” Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the Transportation Finance and Policy Division, said earlier this month. A bill introduced by Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, this year to allow third-party vendors to administer tests passed in the Minnesota Senate but failed in the House.
Housley said the bill could come up for debate in a special session, likely to be called since the Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill.
“Something has to get done,” she said. “We are going to push the governor to do something. It makes so much sense.”
Vanden Busch said there needs to be some kind of change.
“Minnesota needs to figure out how to expand their testing; expanded hours, more employees, maybe have private companies like the driving schools do the testing,” she said. “It just seems that road testing has been a problem for a long time, even before COVID-19, and it needs to be addressed.”