Blueprint for the Future

Blueprint for the Future

How innovations in new driver testing are challenging old programs

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The pandemic sent motor vehicle agencies scrambling. From office closures to frantic PPE orders, administrators were forced to reimagine their operations overnight. In Georgia, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Driver Services unearthed a 15-year-old contingency plan created during the SARS threat, printed copies for his team and gathered everyone around a conference table to review the document.

The old blueprint was a bust: It just didn’t seem relevant to the new threat. Instead, in Georgia and across the world, it quickly became clear that the way through COVID would be to look forward and innovate, rather than to rely on old strategies. Agency leaders turned their focus to solutions ranging from new technologies to a fundamental reimagining of their approaches to core services such as new driver testing.

It didn’t take long for agency leaders “to see this as an opportunity to exercise a pilot,” says Kristina Boardman, DMV administrator at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Now, as emergency protocols related to the pandemic fade away, motor vehicle agencies are weighing which of those temporary solutions have performed well enough to be part of the new normal. The effect of those innovations is likely to transform new driver testing.

COVID: an unexpected, large-scale pilot project

Prior to the pandemic, Iowa officials already had shifted some of the burden of new driver knowledge testing away from state DOT sites by administering a web-based test at schools in a program called “Skip the Trip.” During the pandemic, state agency leaders took the idea a step further, enabling parents to proctor the exam from home.

The program was an instant hit and remains the state’s most popular testing option. Three-quarters of Iowa knowledge tests are now conducted either at home or in schools, and the at-home option now outpaces the school-based one, according to Darcy Doty, director of customer service at the Iowa Department of Transportation. The state has not yet studied whether new drivers who pass the at-home test perform as well as those who take the test at a school or DOT site, but Doty says the testing venue is not affecting pass-fail rates.

“We’re asking parents to monitor the ethics of [administering the test], because this is safety for their children,” Doty says. “I think parents are taking it seriously.”

In Wisconsin, state transportation leaders took an even more dramatic pandemic-era step toward entrusting parents during the credentialing process: exempting under-18 drivers from a state-agency road test if the parents of those drivers attest to their children’s competence and practice. The waiver provision is likely to sunset later this year, but two years of data—including approximately 80,000 waivers granted, covering about 88% of eligible candidates during that time—have provided state leaders with a critical insight: Waiver-eligible drivers who opted to take the traditional road test had a greater likelihood both of crashes (3.9% to 3.2%) and violations (3.4% to 3.1%) than those in the waiver group.

“It shows that [driver’s ed] training is working, and that all of that practice is working,” says Wisconsin DMV Administrator Boardman.

“The pilot is serving its purpose: We’re collecting a lot of data, we’re finding that people want this service, and that safety is not negatively impacted.”

Another Iowa initiative that gained steam during the pandemic was a transition to appointment-based scheduling, aimed at reducing congestion and wait times in offices. Iowa launched a limited pilot test in early March of 2020—just prior to the pandemic—that was limited to REAL ID applicants and conducted at a single site. It was immediately clear that the new system was effective, so when COVID hit in earnest just a couple of weeks later, agency leaders decided to lean into the appointment-based system. By July, it was the default model for the state’s Motor Vehicle Division, including for road-test exams.

Under the new system, the average visit time plummeted from two hours in some locations to about 18 minutes. Ninety-eight percent of Iowans are now scheduling their appointments in advance, and 85% say they want the state to continue with the appointment-based model.

Some staff were initially “skeptical about how this would work and whether it would be more chaotic to manage,” says IDOT’s Doty. “Now, everybody’s very confident that this is the right method for our customers. Our staff has bought into this, they know it’s the best way to perform service, and our customers are reaping the benefits.”

High tech, low touch

In the early days of the pandemic, Georgia adopted a road test waiver similar to Wisconsin’s. That lasted about a month, and officials at Georgia’s Department of Driver Services (DDS) soon began investigating ways to reimplement road tests while minimizing the risks to evaluators. The first solution was a closed-course test in which the evaluators remained outside the vehicle, limited to observing details such as whether drivers properly deployed their turn signals.

It was better than nothing, but far from a robust solution, so state officials turned to nearby Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta for assistance in identifying technology that could fill the gap. Georgia Tech faculty referred DDS to Zenduit, a Canadian company that offered to reconfigure a product designed for commercial trucking so that it could be used for new driver testing. That technology now allows evaluators in Georgia to observe both driver behavior and vehicle performance on a closed course while remaining outside the vehicle.

“That’s technology that we probably wish we had years ago, because the road test is the biggest liability for our organization, when it comes to one of our examiners being involved in a crash,” says Georgia DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore.

Georgia implemented the program in mid-2021, and Moore says the state is still collecting efficacy data. One place the new program lags behind is efficiency, because it takes evaluators about 20 minutes to install the technology on an applicant’s car prior to testing. Moore believes that process can be streamlined significantly.

Twelve hours northeast of Atlanta, a physician-engineer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) is wondering whether tech-based road test tools need to involve a vehicle at all. Flaura Winston, founder and scientific director of the CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, developed a driving-simulation program that uses off-the-shelf hardware such a standard-issue computer and video game steering wheel and pedals. The simulation tests new drivers amidst the sort of challenging conditions that would be difficult and unsafe to replicate in real-world road tests, such as maneuvering around dangerous drivers.

“It’s a diagnostic tool—a blood test, basically—for whether or not someone has the skills needed to drive safely in the most common serious crash scenarios,” Winston says.

She has been developing the technology for several years, working in partnership with Ohio’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and has demonstrated a strong correlation between her test results and those of a traditional road test. Ohio officials are using the results to provide feedback within driver training programs, and considering ways to use insights derived from the simulations to inform future policy.

“There’s real value in the data, as far as what we can learn about these driving behaviors,” says Emily Davidson, state administrator at the Ohio Traffic Safety Office.

Winston is now studying whether a driver’s simulation results are predictive of their likelihood of a real-world crash or violation.

The standards and practices that will govern the next era of new driver testing are still being developed and refined. What’s clear is that COVID-19 accelerated the adoption timeline.

“It definitely changed the trajectory,” says Georgia’s DDS Commissioner Moore. “A lot of what we implemented during the pandemic were things that we had already given some forethought to. The pandemic just brought them about a little bit quicker.”

Hear more about driver test waivers from Kristina Boardman in this episode of AAMVAcast:

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