While a lot of things have returned to normal or are returning to normal since the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, one thing that has not returned to normal is driver testing.
Since March of 2020, people have not had the opportunity to have a road test at SGI’s satellite testing sites across Saskatchewan.
There was no driver testing in Saskatchewan at one point, and currently testing is limited to 14 sites in the province, while Moosomin and 44 other satellite centres around the province have not had any testing for more than a year.
“In mid-March of 2020, testing was actually suspended and then when class one and three testing resumed in April 2020 there was testing offered in a select number of locations,” says Tyler McMurchy of SGI.
“Then class five tests, and tests for those working in health care or agriculture, resumed in early May of 2020 and then we brought back testing for class five, class four and class two and motorcycle and school buses basically and it opened up for everybody on June 25 of 2020.
“So when it first came back though, SGI resumed testing with an innovative trail vehicle method. It involves the examiner following behind the student and if that student requires a supervising driver like class five does, the examiner gives them instructions via bluetooth and there’s a dash cam that captures the view out the front window and into the cab as well to prevent the supervising driver from providing any kind of assistance to the applicant.
“A student takes a test in their own vehicle, and then there is an SGI vehicle the examiner would be following behind in.
“When we brought back testing that way, it was something that SGI had never done before and I don’t know if any other jurisdictions were doing it. It’s similar to if you were to take a motorcycle test, the examiner travels behind you.
“It takes longer to do it this way because there’s video review after the fact. So normally when you would take a road test with the instructor in your vehicle you would find out right at the end of that road test did you pass, did you fail, and so for the trail vehicle method, yes it did take longer. A typical test in pre-pandemic times, the regular way, it’s about a half hour block that we set aside and at the start of the new system I think it was close to two hours because there was also instalation and de-instalation and extra instructions for the camera because it’s actually the applicant that installs the camera and then you have to sanitize things and then build in time for the person to review the footage. So we got that down to about an hour. So yes, it does take extra time to do it this way.
“What happened was in-vehicle testing resumed in September and October in stages but those tests still actually take a little bit longer because there’s some additional hand sanitizing and instructions, but they’re quicker than the tests involving the trail vehicle. However, when there are increases in positive Covid-19 cases in areas of the province, examiners revert back to the trail vehicle method, so less exams are able to be conducted that day. At any given time there are usually some of those 14 locations that are undertaking the trail vehicle method.
“So the way we’re doing tests now takes longer. We have hired additional staff and have had our staff working a lot of overtime to deal with the demand. And we had a very significant backlog when testing resumed because everybody basically got their tests cancelled and so we had to work our way throughout that backlog. In some locations, we were as high as 14 weeks behind. In regular times, in really big centers they can be upwards of eight to 10 weeks in some locations but three to six weeks would be the ideal and we’re pretty close to that in some locations. Our driver examination team has worked very hard to address those backlogs. One of the reasons we’re able to do that is because they centralized the testing in the 14 locations throughout the province so that it reduces the travel time and other factors involved in serving the satellite centres and it maximizes the time they can spend conducting those tests.”
Testing will resume in satellite centres
McMurchy says testing will resume in satellite centres at some point.
“It will resume, but we don’t have a date,” he said. “When the pandemic subsides and public health authorities are no longer recommending reduced travelling across the province or there aren’t these restrictions, SGI absolutely looks forward to again delivering services in the 45 satellite locations that we did previously, including Moosomin,” he said.
“When we have examiners go to the satellite locations, that travel time is part of their work day. By completing the testing in only the 14 testing locations, SGI is able to deliver the largest number of exams and keep wait times to a minimum and that was one really significant pressure.
“A lot of people were very concerned about the prospect of having to wait 14 weeks for a test, so our driver examination team really did make a priority of trying to bring down those wait lists and deliver the tests. We certainly appreciate the patience that our customers have displayed as we try to bring these tests to them but we do also have to really consider examiner and customer safety as well. So having our examiners travelling to different locations, keeping in mind in some cases they are going to be in the vehicle with people, that’s a concern as well. So we want to do what we can to keep them safe.
“Another reason we limited the number of locations is if a driver examiner is in a situation where they are required to self-isolate because maybe they’ve been exposed by a customer. By having the services more centralized and a larger component of staff, you’re able to cover that person’s absence more easily. So that’s another thing, whereas if you were to go out to the smaller locations, you might not have that backup available.”
What will be the determining factor in resuming service to the 45 satellite clinics around the province?
“It will be in line with public health orders and recommendations,” said McMurchy. “So when the public health authority is no longer recommending against travelling across the province, I think that will be when we can look at delivering those services in those locations again.
“The other thing is, in some of those cases, the actual locations where they operated out of aren’t available for a number of reasons. They might be used by the local community in relation to the pandemic, and that might be a factor depending on how it gets opened up.
“But as we see those vaccine rates rise and as we move through the different stages, we’ll take our cue from our public health authority experts. SGI has always been about safety. We promote traffic safety, and we are very big on employee safety as well. It’s always been an employee safety focused culture for the company, so for that reason and the fact that there is only so much physical distancing you can do in a vehicle, we had limited the number of testing centres.
“But we absolutely understand there are people who would like these services to be brought back to their town and we are looking forward to the day where we’re able to do that. When testing resumed in April 2020 and there were long waits, one of the priority groups that were able to book tests first were, in addition to health care workers, agriculture workers because we wanted to make sure that they could operate on the farm, if there were kids working on the family farm so they could have their license in time for seeding and then harvest. So that was something that was maintained throughout all of last year.”
Spencer Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The World-Spectator