Driving test traffic jam expected when road exams resume

Would-be drivers are eagerly idling behind a COVID-19 red light. 

Permit tests and standard, non-commercial road exams haven't been taken in Newfoundland and Labrador since mid-March, when the motor registration division parked non-urgent in-person services.

That means a testing traffic jam awaits anyone hoping to get their licence when coronavirus restrictions lift.

The ride's ready 

Cora Mitchell was set to take her long-anticipated driving test days after the division shut down.

The 16-year-old from Gander saved up money working at McDonald's and bought herself a car a year before she would be old enough to drive it on her own. 

"I've always been, like, an independent person," she said. "So I kinda wanted to just have that for myself and be able to bring myself places — and to school — and just go out and see my friends sometimes."

She'd likely be doing all of that from behind the wheel of her bright red, two-door, 2008 Honda Accent right now, if it weren't for the coronavirus and ensuing closures. 

For now, the "Novice Driver" sign stays posted on her back windshield, her hard-earned wheels parked in her family's driveway.

Easing off the brakes 

Health Minister John Haggie told CBC's Newfoundland Morning he suspects driving tests will be allowed to start back up once the province shifts to Alert Level 3.

Service NL, however, wasn't definitive about a level. The department responsible for the motor registration division instead said the province's Department of Health is reviewing advice on riding together in vehicles to determine what's safe. 

"Once these guidelines allow for a driver and passenger to ride together in the front seats of a vehicle, both private driving school instruction and driver examinations can resume," Service NL said in a statement. 

The department has 14 driver examiners and anticipates about 1,600 students per month will be expecting road tests. Service NL says once the demand for testing is confirmed, the division will determine the most effective way to clear the backlog.

Many of the motor registration division's other services are available online

Katie Breen/CBC

"Thank god students are being very patient," said Paul Prowse, owner of Smart Driver Training in St. John's.

Many of his students, he said, understand the situation but have called to ask when driving tests and in-car lessons will start up again. 

When they do, Prowse said, things will look different. 

His driving instructors will ask pre-screening questions to determine the risk and wipe down cars with anti-bacterial spray. Students and teachers will wear masks and gloves. 

Prowse looked at having a Plexiglas divider installed in his training cars between the front seats, but decided it would interfere with an instructor's ability to grab the wheel or shift a car into neutral, if necessary. 

The divider could also become a projectile in an accident, he said. 

Stalled plans

Coronavirus hit Newfoundland and Labrador just as Prowse was preparing to take the next step with his business. 

He had found a new headquarters after years of renting college classroom space to teach the in-class curriculum of his graduated licensing program.

"I signed the lease probably a week before the pandemic hit, right?" he said. 

"We were scheduled to move in there the first of April." 

Now with his own classroom, Prowse said he'll be able to offer in-class sessions more frequently so fewer students can attend at a time and allow for physical distancing. 

His landlord is looking into the federal rent subsidy program, he said. In the meantime, Prowse says he's qualified for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit to help offset his salary. 

Prowse is empathetic toward his students, especially given summer is approaching. 

But he stresses patience — in life and behind the wheel — is key.

"The way I look at it, you know, you've waited 16 years to get a licence," he said. "Give it another couple of months under the circumstances that we're in."

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