Georgia governor Brian Kemp suspended driving tests in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, instead granting new licenses to people without requiring them to jump through any hoops. But despite warnings that it would be a disaster, we haven’t seen any massive fallout from it. That prompted Jalopnik alum Aaron Gordon to offer a very controversial pitch: abolish the driving test.
It seems almost counterintuitive at first, but Gordon notes that there’s no real research that correlates driving tests to increased road safety; instead, the tests mostly bolster the driving education industry but don’t appear to have any measurable impact on actual performance on the road. Gordon also points out the inequalities that come into play. From his Vice article:
Fixing the way we think about driving tests, and abolishing them altogether, is important for more than just having fewer people die on U.S. roads. It is emblematic of the larger American struggle to make our institutions fairer. The implication of earning a driver’s license is that the license can be suspended or revoked for driving like a maniac. And, indeed, they can be, including for dangerous behavior like drunk driving. But such cases are the exception, not the rule. One study looking at New Jersey licenses found that in 2018, 5.5 percent of all licenses were suspended, but a whopping 91 percent of those suspended licenses were for non-driving-related reasons such as failure to pay fines. By and large, licenses are suspended as a punishment not for driving poorly, but for being poor. It is an extension of our national policy of criminalizing poverty and using traffic enforcement as an excuse to extract fines to pay for a bloated criminal justice system financed through those very fines. And by having a suspended license, it is harder for that person to get and hold a job, a necessary prerequisite to paying the very fines that resulted in the license suspension in the first place.
When I saw Gordon’s headline, I jumped immediately to my own conclusion: no. We need to keep the tests. How are we supposed to regulate who gets on the roads? How do we prevent unsafe drivers from driving?
But as I read his story, I remembered one evening at my own driver’s training classes up in Michigan. After school, myself and two other girls were paired up for a long drive to the city that would teach us how to navigate things like roundabouts and highways, which we didn’t have in my smaller town. The problem was, it had started blizzarding. We’re talking near-whiteout conditions. We had to get this drive in, so we went anyway. It was terrifying, but we could just barely see one of the lines on the road, so it was deemed safe enough.
Conditions were so poor that we didn’t make it to the highway. I had the first drive, then we swapped out to one of the other drivers. On the way home, we swapped to our final driver.
She was a mess. She was constantly driving into oncoming traffic, mistaking their road lines for hers. When our instructor corrected her, she’d alternate between screaming and bursting into tears before jerking over onto the side of the road. She put us into a spin, at which point she was ejected from the driver’s seat. I had to white-knuckle us the rest of the way home.
That girl, though, still passed driver’s training, even though she also did poorly on her road sign tests. She then took her road test and got her license—”just barely,” she told us. She wrecked two cars in high school. As far as I know, she’s still driving today.
And she wasn’t the only one who questionably passed. I grew up in a poorer area, and even though we were supposed to take our driving test with the car we planned on driving regularly, test proctors would look the other way if you rented a nice car to bring in because your daily wouldn’t pass the basic inspection that ensured, y’know, your headlights worked. The test proctors were very arbitrary in their evaluations because they weren’t being paid all that much to spend a Saturday being driven around by a teenager. I bombed the parallel parking of my driving test, which was supposed to be an automatic failure, and I passed. I had a friend who aced everything but didn’t look to the right and left obviously enough at stop signs, so he failed. I had friends who just went to different proctors and DMVs until they got a proctor that just didn’t care.
So I do think Gordon has a point. The driving test, as we know it, doesn’t do a whole lot for guaranteeing driver education or safety, especially if you can shop around for a lenient DMV or can bullshit your way into a license. After all, how many times have you stopped at a four-way intersection without a light and found out firsthand just how little people remember about driving etiquette?
Check out Gordon’s article, then let me know what you think. Are you convinced we should abolish the driving test? Do you have an alternative? Are you in favor of what we have now?