Glencoe, Minn. – Jade Willaert got up early last week at her home in Jordan and headed for the cornfields outside this McLeod County town some 50 miles west of the Twin Cities.
Willaert’s no farmer. She was traveling two counties away to take the road test for her driver’s license.
From the time the 16-year-old and her parents left their home about 40 miles south of the Twin Cities to the moment they arrived at the exam station here, they drove almost an hour. And Willaert is one of the lucky ones.
Teens and parents in the Twin Cities are roaming far and wide to grab a slot in the state’s overcrowded driver testing system. In some cases, they’re traveling hundreds of miles, staying overnight to take the test in places such as Detroit Lakes, Brainerd and Duluth.
“It’s a big topic of conversation among parents,” said Cara Willaert, Jade’s mom. “I have had friends who have done this with multiple kids. They tell me, ‘You have to do this months in advance.’ ”
State officials say the exam squeeze has nothing to do with MNLARS, the troubled car-registration system that was scrapped this year after the state spent more than $100 million on it. Rather, it’s all about bodies, and not enough of them.
“We’re short-staffed,” said a Division of Vehicle Services worker at the test station in Austin, who declined to give her name.
Natalie Foster of Eden Prairie had been through the exam process with two daughters. So when her son, Will, was ready to take the test earlier this year, she didn’t anticipate any trouble.
“You’re looking at [finding a test site] within a reasonable driving distance of your area,” Foster said. “And I just couldn’t understand it. There was nothing available for months and months and months.
“In Chaska, where my girls had gotten their licenses, there was nothing. They weren’t even taking bookings.”
Will Foster and his mother eventually headed to Albert Lea, nearly 100 miles away, where they stayed overnight. Will passed his test the next day, but the experience left Natalie Foster puzzled.
“Something’s not right,” she said. “The fact that we’ve got to drive almost two hours to get this done ... I can’t be the only person having this issue.”
Plan in advance
There are 110 examiners giving road tests at 92 exam stations statewide, according to the state Department of Public Safety (DPS). Seven additional examiners are being hired after the Legislature provided funding for the new positions during its recent session.
Those examiners gave about 146,000 road tests last year, according to DPS figures, or more than 1,300 tests per examiner. That was actually down from recent years; in 2015, for example, examiners administered more than 158,000 road tests.
Prospective drivers should plan in advance for their tests and be flexible about where they’ll take it, said Doug Neville, a DPS spokesman, adding that summer is the busiest time of the year for driver testing.
Neville said that smaller test stations in the metro area such as those in Hastings, Stillwater and Andover might have more openings than the larger stations in Eagan, Plymouth and Arden Hills. Prospective test-takers can take their chances on a walk-in appointment, but those aren’t available at every exam station in the state.
The state’s online scheduling system allows exam-takers to book a test up to two months in advance. But students and parents spoke with frustration about the system, which many said is constantly booked.
Students told of spending entire days hitting “refresh” on their computer, hoping that a cancellation might open up, only to strike out.
“The website is pretty difficult to navigate,” said Brigid Golden, 17, of St. Paul. “You can only look at one testing site at a time and it only shows you a couple of months in advance. Usually there aren’t any tests available.
“My driving instructor told me to just go to a test site and sit there and see if anyone canceled,” she added. “But there was only one person there and she told me not to bother.”
After nearly three months of searching, Golden found a booking in Worthington, about 185 miles away, and took the driving test there last October. She passed.
“I ended up having to take school off, and it was hard to find a time when one of my parents could come with me,” she said. “It was pretty frustrating, but especially nerve-racking. You put [in] all this time and effort to find a test, so there’s a lot of pressure not to fail.
“It was definitely a pain to get all of this done.”
Another option for prospective test takers is calling a live scheduler, who can set up a road test six months in advance. Last week, the earliest available test date statewide through the live scheduling system was Oct. 30, nearly four months away.
Long drive paid off
Ryan Jech of Kasson said it’s hard to get a road test appointment 15 miles away in Rochester, where his daughter Lexi hopes to take the test.
“You have to go almost a year ahead to sign up,” he said.
Even driver’s education classes can be a challenge, Lexi Jech added. She said the driver’s ed class offered through the Kasson-Mantorville School District is booked for the next year and a half.
Back in Glencoe last week, Jade Willaert exited her car flashing a smile. The trek from her home in Jordan had been worth it. She passed the test.
“I was nervous,” she said, knowing how hard it would be to reschedule if she failed.
“Kids talk about the strategy all the time. Every place is so booked.”