Bill would enable private schools to administer driver exams

OLYMPIA — Everybody’s been there: Sitting in a room, lit by fluorescent light, with ticket number in hand, waiting, seemingly forever, for the Department of Licensing employee to call you up to the counter.

“The problem is that right now, in many driver’s licensing offices around the state, there are unacceptable wait times,” said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines. “These offices are the face of the state government.”

But now, Upthegrove wants to do something about it. He has introduced a bill that aims to reduce wait times at the department by contracting out driver’s licensing exams to private driving schools. It’s an idea that even the department is behind.

His bill, heard Thursday at a public hearing, also decreases the frequency with which licenses must be renewed, from every five years to every six years, which should further clear out waiting lines at the department.

By sending drivers to the 160 driving schools around Washington instead of the 30 state Department of Licensing sites for their tests, Upthegrove hopes to eliminate the most time-consuming task of department staff, freeing them to more quickly help customers, which will in turn improve the public perception of state employees and services.

He foresees the driver’s tests simply being included at the end of the training class at private driving schools.

“We feel it’s a logical step,” said Andrew Finley of 911 driving schools. “Other states do it already. It would definitely decrease a lot of the waiting time at DOL for customers.”

A proposed substitute bill includes public schools that administer driver’s training classes in the group authorized to give driver’s licensing exams, and advocates a similar contracting-out process for motorcycle endorsement exams.

The state would still be the one to issue driver’s licenses, but the driving school conducting the exam would give applicants a certificate stating that they had passed. Department officials at the bill’s public hearing said they’re behind the bill, as it relieves stress on their staff.

The bill also limits the price private companies can charge for the driving exams to $25, and caps the written exam fee at $10. Upthegrove hopes this free-market setup will eventually lead to lower test prices for customers.

The only opponents to the bill at Thursday’s hearing wanted to ensure that strict standards would be upheld at private driving schools, and voiced concerned for potential conflicts of interest if the driving instructors that charge students for their training courses also administer the test.

“The DOL is a safe and neutral environment for the test,” said Lucinda Young, a lobbyist for the Washington Education Association, speaking for driver’s ed teachers in public schools. “We would not want a perceived conflict of interest that the teacher (who taught the course) might ease up on the actual licensing test.”

Upthegrove responded by pointing out that in most school settings, the same person who teaches the material also administers the tests.

The proposal also includes an appropriation of $200,000 to be transferred from the highway safety fund to the department, with the aim of developing the department’s online services.

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