Get your license? Here’s how the RI DMV has adapted to the pandemic

PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI) – On a 19-degree winter day in mid-January, several employees of the Motor Vehicle Division’s Providence office braved freezing temperatures in heavy winter jackets to test the skills of new drivers.

DMV Administrator Bud Craddock stressed that this is the safest option for these workers, rather than sitting in the vehicles of hundreds of new drivers and being at risk of contracting COVID-19 in such nearby neighborhoods.

“In March 2020, we actually had to close the test drive sites for the safety of the people doing the testing as well as our customers passing through,” Craddock said.

After being closed for two months, the DMV reopened in June 2020 with a new closed-loop controlled system that they discovered was in use in South Carolina.

It was first used in several branches, including Cranston and Providence, but due to staffing and rationalization issues. Craddock said it is now offered at the Providence branch.

“We’re basically replicating the same success rate that they were seeing when they were taking the courses on the road as well,” Craddock explained.

“What they are being tested here are fine motor skills which will really improve their ability to be a safe driver, testing spatial distances to ensure they are able to parallel park, make turns under tight circumstances so that they don’t have an accident or a collision,” he continued.

Craddock joked that the examiners were standing behind a barrier for their own safety, explaining that there had been many potential drivers crashing into the barriers, but no injuries to date.

Data shows that over the past five years the number of drivers, in general, applying for a driving test has dropped, but Craddock said there was no drop in the number of young drivers taking registering for the exam.

He said things have “corrected” to the levels they were at before the pandemic.

Drivers must demonstrate that they can back into one spot, parallel park, make a three-point turn, and drive in reverse while the examiner watches from outside the vehicle.

An attendant can also be in the vehicle with them, but cannot give advice during the test. If the driver passes, they will wait in their car for their turn to enter the DMV and obtain their license.

Craddock said there is currently a 90-day safeguard to get a license, however, 16-year-old drivers must wait at least six months from the date of their license to even apply for one.

He said if they sign up for a road test date on the day they get their licence, they will be able to find a time slot with no problem.

New drivers should still have experience in “real” road conditions. A parent or guardian must verify that any driver under the age of 18 has spent at least 50 hours behind the wheel.

In Rhode Island, it is encouraged, because of insurance premiums, to take driving lessons with a driving school.

12 News followed Brett White’s first hour drive with AAA Northeast. The center’s interior was empty, rather than filled with students taking their state-mandated 33-hour in-class classes.

Due to the pandemic, everything is now virtual. In a recent survey, AAA Northeast said that 72% of students and parents prefer online training over in-person training, and 71% believe it is just as effective as in-person training.

“It was a little hard to pay attention,” the Barrington teenager said.

Longtime AAA driving instructor David Hanson said there aren’t many openings for driving lessons because they all have to be one-on-one now.

“We’re getting by,” he said. “Everyone has been very receptive to the new policies, you really feel like you’re making a difference. I feel like it’s more satisfying now. Try to be as safe and hygienic as possible.

The student’s temperature is taken before getting into the vehicle, everything is wiped down before and after each lesson, and the window is cracked for traffic.

After the road lesson, students can watch a video to see what the road test looks like, and some driving schools even take students through the closed course to see it in person.

Craddock noted that students are not allowed to drive the course before the test.

Milton S. Rodgers