State steers away from driver test business

Generations of young drivers have sweated out a serious rite of passage, the drive test. Parallel parking, backing up and fully stopping, all those skills have been evaluated by state Department of Licensing examiners — until now.

Driver testing ended as of Dec. 1, 2012, at Department of Licensing offices in Everett, Smokey Point, and nearly 20 other locations around Washington. Due to legislation passed in Olympia in 2011, driver training schools and school district driving programs are now allowed to conduct driving and written tests for new license applicants.

The aim of House Bill 1635 was convenience. The bill’s title was: “An act relating to reducing customer wait times at driver licensing offices.”

“We’re taking a phased-in approach. It started in King County in October,” said Department of Licensing spokeswoman Christine Anthony. In Snohomish County, she said Thursday, only the department’s Lynnwood office now offers drive tests.

Anthony said testing is still done at about 21 of the state’s 56 offices, and will continue in areas without nearby driving schools.

Under the law, drive schools that conduct tests must be licensed with the state or be part of a state-certified public school program. They are subject to audits and record checks.

Regardless of where tests are taken — results are sent electronically to the Department of Licensing — customers must still go to a state office to pay the $35 driver license application fee and the licensing fee of $45.

The change is bringing new business to private driving schools.

“It was quite overwhelming at first,” said Larry Pierce, who owns Defensive Driving School of Marysville and runs five other school locations. The Marysville drive school operates out of Marysville Getchell High School.

The goal of the bill is apparently being achieved. Anthony said that when the state handled all drive tests, some customers waited more than a month for appointments. “Generally, we can schedule appointments within a day or two,” Pierce said.

And wait times are down significantly for other services at the state offices. Department of Licensing Director Alan Haight said in a statement released Jan. 8 that the average wait time at licensing service offices in December was 10 minutes. Although waits are much shorter than in the past, Haight said, no staff cuts are planned.

“We still have plenty of customers to serve on any given day,” he said. Workers at the state offices now must check documents to confirm state residency, Anthony said.

One downside for customers is a rise in drive-test costs. The law allows driver training schools to set the fee they charge. Pierce said his school charges $40 for a drive test if the driver uses their own car, and $50 if the school’s car is used.

The state still has test content requirements. Those include parallel parking, uphill and downhill parking, backing around a corner, and other basics. Examiners with the schools had to be certified and undergo background checks, Pierce said.

The Everett School District, like several others in the area, no longer offers driver education, said Mary Waggoner, a district spokeswoman.

The Lake Stevens School District is one that still does.

Mike Shephard teaches with Lake Stevens High School Traffic Education, a before- and after-school program. “We knew this was coming,” Shephard said. “We have our own driving test and written test. Once they pass that, we give the DOL written test. And once they pass that, they can sign up to take the DOL drive test.”

Jayme Taylor, a Lake Stevens district spokeswoman, said the school’s program is tuition-based and self-supporting. “It costs $400, lower than some drive schools in the area,” she said.

Wherever tests are taken, what really matters is that newly licensed drivers are safe drivers.

Pierce offers some good reminders — to all of us.

“We have students who creep out to make a turn in traffic, and then go when there’s not enough time,” he said. “And one of the biggest things is backing out of a driveway and not looking back, just using a rearview mirror. You should be looking back.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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