Covid poses obstacles to the driver’s license process

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Charlie Cooper

Sophomore Baird Hruska poses with his learners permit after taking the DMV’s initial leaners permit test. Getting a driver’s license, which was once an easy-to-understand rite of passage for teens, has been heavily disrupted by the pandemic.

Sonali Rao, News Intern

Before the pandemic, getting a driver’s license was generally a well-understood process. The effects of COVID-19 quickly changed that.

The pre-pandemic steps to receiving a driver’s license, which included taking various tests to earn a learner’s permit, taking a driver’s-ed course (for those choosing to take it and being allowed to get their license at age 17 instead of 18), spending tens of hours gaining supervised driving experience and ultimately passing a road test to finally be eligible for a full drivers license, have changed. 

Prior to the pandemic, the steps to getting a driver’s license in New York were the following. According to the American Automobile Association, at age 16, application for a learner’s permit could be made. At that time, the applicant had to pass a vision test or bring a report of their eye test.  If the applicant had not taken driver education and gotten the certificate of completion, a written test had to be passed before they got their learner’s permit. The learner permit allowed driving only with a supervising driver age 21 or older who had a valid license to operate the vehicle sitting in the front passenger seat. Restrictions varied regarding when and where drivers with a learner permit were allowed to drive. In New York City, the supervisor had to be a parent or driver education instructor and the vehicle had to have dual controls. Front seat occupants were limited to the supervising driver and all occupants must wear safety belts. The learner permit holder was not allowed to drive with more than one unrelated passenger under 21. In Westchester County, a driver with a learner permit was not allowed to drive on Westchester parkways or within the city of New York. A learner permit holder had to hold the permit for at least six months while accumulating 50 hours, 15 of which had to be after sunset, of practice driving with a licensed parent, guardian, driving school instructor, or driver education teacher. A five-hour pre-licensing class was also required to be able to take the road test and get the junior driver license.

The junior driver license allowed the applicant to drive on their own, with restrictions: no driving with more than one unrelated passenger under 21; no driving in the city of New York; Upstate, no driving between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. other than from their home to school or work. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, driving directly from home to work or driver education was allowed only between 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. Driving while accompanied by a parent or guardian was allowed at any time of day. The night limits did not apply Upstate or in Suffolk and Nassau counties if accompanied by a parent or guardian. All people in the vehicle were required to wear safety belts.

Full licenses were granted automatically at age 18 if the applicant had a valid junior driver’s license. At age 17, the applicant was eligible for a full license if they had a junior driver’s license and had completed a driver education course. A full license allowed driving without any restrictions.

When the nation shut down due to COVID-19 in March 2020, driver’s ed classes in both high schools and in private driving schools were cancelled for health safety reasons by New York State, leaving students in the middle of the process in limbo.

Masters had provided co-curricular credit to students who participated in driver’s ed programs at either Mercy College or Dobbs Ferry High School in past years, but the school is not requiring non-P.E. co-curriculars this year, and the driver’s ed courses at Mercy College and Dobbs Ferry High School remain closed. According to Dean of Students Jeff Carnevale, credit for an outside driver’s ed course next year “will once again be considered.”

The driver’s ed coordinator from Dobbs Ferry High School, Stephanie Motts, said that driver’s education is still not running at DFHS. Currently, the coordinator noted that the New York Division of Motor Vehicles suggests that parents teach their children themselves and submit the DMV form confirming the needed hours of supervised driving. The 5 hour class can now be taken online and she added that, hopefully, driver’s ed will resume as usual next year. Of note, the 5 hour class taken online conveys the same credit as the previous in-person class.

Sophomore Baird Hruska said, “I’m currently in the middle of lessons to get my license. I have worked with my parent, but all of my lessons have been canceled. I did my five hour course, and took my test and passed for my learners permit.”

In July 2020, New York State again changed the rules to allow driver’s ed classes to resume, but to enhance safety during the pandemic, the previously in-class instruction was to be done online.  The 50-hour supervised driving requirement remained, and parents and guardians with a valid driver’s license could oversee the driving practice hours as before. 

For the knowledge portion of the driver’s license test, after initially shutting it down completely when the pandemic first struck, the state changed the rules to allow the driver’s education classes and the test to be conducted online to allow the driver’s license process to continue without fear of spreading illness. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced,  “Allowing driving schools to teach this course remotely will allow courses to resume without risking the health and safety of those participating.”

The professional driving schools quickly pivoted to meet the demand, offering online classes to fulfill the requirement for students to be able to take the driving test when completed. A representative from the Golden Crown Driving School in White Plains said that students can register for their online class from their website. Fulfillment of the 50 hours of supervised driving requirement must be signed off by a parent or guardian before the road test can be scheduled, and the school is offering in-person driving lessons if the student prefers them.

For the driving test however, safety concerns remained. How was health and safety to be maintained in the close proximity that is required during a driving test? In a press release on March 21, 2020, New York State Division of Motor Vehicles suspended all driving tests.

Currently, road tests are being scheduled according to NYDMV’s website. Changes to maintain health and safety include requirements for face coverings and only one person can accompany the applicant to the road test. Additionally, as of November 2020, the car used for the road test must be current on inspection.

The circumstances and rules can change rapidly. Consult the NYDMV’s website for updated information.