Private instructors giving WA driver’s exams

YAKIMA — Under a new state law that effectively privatizes driver testing, first-time drivers now must apply online and pay a private driving school anywhere from about $45 to $60 to administer both a written and driving test.

On top of that, the state Department of Licensing will charge another $80 — a $35 application fee and another $45 for the actual license — roughly $140 when it’s all said and done.

It’s all part of an effort authorized by the 2011 Legislature to cut down wait times at Licensing Department offices. DOL began shifting administration of driving tests to the private sector in December, and completed the transition on Jan. 1. That’s when private driving schools in Yakima began administering the tests.

Driving instructor John Larson of A-1 Driving School of Yakima said he’s already giving more than 80 driving tests a week. “I was a little bit surprised (by the volume of tests),” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. It turned out to be a little bit more than I thought.”

The move comes three years after the DOL downsized and closed 11 offices statewide, including one in Yakima, where operations were consolidated with the existing DOL office in Union Gap.

Subsequently, the Union Gap office, like many others across the state, saw larger crowds of people seeking services. Wait times soared to an average of 90 minutes per person, DOL officials said.

But now that time has dropped to only about 10 minutes since the driving test administration has been shifted to the private sector, said DOL spokeswoman Christine Anthony in Olympia.

“It’s going well,” Anthony said. “The whole emphasis behind the (move) was to reduce wait time at our offices.”

People getting a license for the first time can fill out their application online at home before going to a local driving school to take the written and road tests. An online program on the DOL’s website navigates applicants through the process, and the same documentation, including proof of residency and identification, is required. Driving schools usually have computers for those who lack access.

Written tests are once again done on paper rather than a computer.

Some schools that had more rigorous written tests than the state’s have retained them, said Anthony. But all written tests must meet minimum state criteria.

The state is now discussing whether to move to an online test. A score of 80 percent or higher is still required on both the written and driving tests.

Once the testing is finished, the school inputs the score into the DOL’s website, and applicants then go to a local DOL office to pick up their actual driver’s license.

Four schools in eight locations from Sunnyside in the Lower Valley to Naches administer driving tests.

Although schools charge fees for administering the test, they aren’t making much profit from it, said driving instructor John Tull of FACT Driver’s Education in Yakima.

“You’re basically breaking even for the time you spend,” he said, explaining that driving schools make their money on instruction.

Setting up their private schools for test administration hasn’t been easy. Tull said the state requires schools to submit specific maps of the driving courses they use. The courses must include a certain number of traffic elements, such as intersections and traffic signs, he said.

“And they’re very specific about what has to be in drive routes,” he said.

Driving courses must include backing up, parking, starting on a hill, parallel parking, turns, traffic control devices and intersections, he added.

Instructors administering tests have to be state certified by undergoing 100 hours of training.

While the shift is more work for driving schools, it has its benefits, Tull said. For example, he can now test youths seeking a learners permit who take driver’s education at his school.

“So it was just a real good fit for convenience for the kids, the students themselves,” he said. “We’re going to everything we can to make it easy on the customer.”

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