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 18 and older also can get waivers. The biggest impact, though, is on teenagers, because 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 before they take off on their own, safety advocates say.
"At a moment of national crisis like this, safety can't take a back seat," Maureen Vogel, spokeswoman for the National Safety Council, an Itasca, Ill.-based organization focused on eliminating preventable deaths, said.
"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."
The issue of waiving or suspending road tests for young people during the pandemic has been fraught with controversy in some states.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order in April that allowed most people applying for a regular driver's license to get one without having to take the road test during the state of emergency. That included teens who held a learner's permit for year and a day and had no violations.
The order quickly drew fire from highway safety advocates.
Testing a teen's skills at the motor vehicles department is important, said Sarah Casto, a driving instructor from Monticello, Ga., who launched an online petition asking Kemp to reverse his decision. It attracted 2,550 signatures, many from parents.
"Having a road test is the last stop for a professional to see if teenagers can make decisions on their own without help," she said. "I was scared for the safety of the drivers and the rest of the people on the road."
Less than three weeks after his first order, Kemp issued a new one, requiring waiver recipients to take a road test. By then, about 20,000 teens had a waiver.
In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law in June that temporarily allowed teen drivers to get a limited license during the pandemic without taking a road test. Applicants must be 16 or 17, have had a limited learner's permit for at least one year and have completed at least 60 hours of supervised driving, including at night. They must not have had a moving violation or seat-belt or cellphone violation within the past six months. (Qualified older drivers can receive a different waiver.)
Transportation safety advocates had urged Cooper to veto the legislation, saying eliminating the road test would put untested young drivers on the roads, imperiling their lives and those of others.
States such as North Carolina are "moving forward with something that feels nice and expedient but may not be safe," said Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Winston co-wrote an op-ed in June asking Cooper to "pump the brakes" on eliminating road tests.
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.
In Wisconsin, officials are trying a program that waives road testing for young drivers who want to get their probationary license if they meet certain requirements.
To get the waiver, teens ages 16 and 17 must have held a learner's permit with no violations for at least six months and completed 30 hours of classroom instruction and additional hours of behind-the-wheel training with a licensed instructor. They also must have at least 30 hours of driving with their parent or guardian, who has to sign the waiver.
From mid-May through Dec. 7, the state has issued 31,438 such waivers, according to Kristina Boardman, the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles' administrator.
Most Wisconsin teens pass the road test anyway, Boardman noted. Last year, 71% did so on their first attempt and 98% did after their first or second try.
Wisconsin's plan is to run the waiver program for a year. So far, the program is "going very well" and no safety concerns have arisen, she added.