Getting your driver’s license is a fading rite of passage for teens these days, but if you happen to be a teen in Georgia you can get one now without even taking a road test because of the coronavirus epidemic. So far, nearly 20,000 teens have.
From The New York Times:
“There have been 19,483 teens who upgraded their permit to a provisional driver’s license with the consent of their parent or responsible adult,” Susan Sports, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Driver Services, said on Thursday.
“These teens held a permit for a year and a day and complied with all Georgia’s mandatory driver education requirements,” including 40 hours of supervised training behind the wheel, she said.
Gov. Brian Kemp suspended the road-test requirement for most Georgians applying for driver’s licenses in an April 23 executive order.
A little over 1,600 people have signed a petition urging the state to bring back the road test for teens, which seems a little alarmist, if only because, as Vice’s Aaron Gordon noted last week, road tests are a pretty useless way of judging if teen drivers will be safe drivers.
That is mostly because driving once under the watchful eye of an examiner is one thing, while driving for months alone or with your buddies as a teen is a whole different thing. In the first scenario you’re being as conscientious as possible. In the second, well, you’re probably not, and over a much longer period of time. Which is natural! Teenagers are still growing up, and make a lot of poor decisions, something passing a road test can’t fix.
Road tests also only cover the basics. Let’s actually look at Georgia’s, which I think is pretty typical of other states:
On the Road Skills Test you will be expected to do all or part of the following:
Parallel Parking: Park midway between two standards so that your car is not more than 18 inches from the curb.
Backing: Back your car for a distance of about 50 feet, at a slow rate of speed, and as straight and as smoothly as possible. Turn your head and look back at all times while backing.
Stopping for Signs or Traffic Signals: Give the proper hand or brake signal; approach in the proper lane; stop before reaching a pedestrian crosswalk, and remain stopped until you can move safely through.
Turnabout: Turn your car in a narrow space using two-, three- or five-point turns.
Use of Clutch: If your car has a standard transmission, you must shift smoothly and correctly.
Approaching Corners: You must be in the proper lane and look in both directions.
Yielding Right-of-Way: Always yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, motor vehicles, bicyclists or anyone else who moves into the intersection before you.
Turning: Get into the proper lane and give signal an adequate distance before reaching the turn.
Passing: Always look ahead and behind to make sure you can safely pass without interfering with other traffic.
Following: Do not drive too closely behind other cars. Watch the car ahead of you; when it passes some reference point, such as a telephone pole, and then count “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two.” If you pass the same spot before you are through counting, you are following too closely.
Posture: Keep both hands on the steering wheel. Do not rest your elbow on the window and do not attempt to carry on a conversation with the Examiner because they will be busy giving instructions and recording your score.
A road test that includes a requirement that you don’t hit pedestrians is about as basic as things get. Still, decades ago, when cars were more complicated machines to drive, accomplishing all of these tasks might have been a taller order. A modern teen might be understandably intimidated rolling up to the test in something like an old VW Beetle, with no power steering, a manual transmission, and only one side mirror.
But even a 5-year-old can handle modern cars. Safe driving is mostly about good decision-making and impulse control over time, something that won’t show up on a road test, and something that most teens unfortunately don’t have enough of. Also keep in mind that before teens take the road test in Georgia, they’ve already spent plenty of time on the road, or at least 40 hours of supervised driving if their parents follow the letter of the law, seat time that is surely much more valuable to learn how to drive in real-world situations than is being able to parallel park.
One solution, as Gordon suggested, could be to more severely punish bad teen drivers with license suspensions or revocations; another could be simply raising the age at which you’re allowed to drive. A one-time road test, in any case, probably won’t have much to do with the end result, since drivers only get safer with more experience, especially true for teens.