New Brunswick

COVID has sidelined 16-year-olds' dreams of driving

For thousands of just-turned-16-year-olds, COVID-19 has so far robbed them of an important rite of passage: getting a driver's licence.

Parents and wannabe drivers worry about backlog when government resumes tests

Many 16-year-olds have been waiting to get behind the wheel, but the province has not reinstated the written driver's test cancelled in March because of COVID-19. (Associated Press)

For thousands of just-turned-16-year-olds, COVID-19 has so far robbed them of an important rite of passage: getting a driver's licence. 

The written test to start the process was cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic. And although road tests have resumed, written tests are still not being done.

Stephen Cox's daughter has saved up enough money to buy herself a car. Yet she hasn't been able to take the written test since turning 16 on May 28.

"She's been very anxious to start driving, and she's sitting now waiting to do the written test," said Cox. "She keeps on asking me every day, or every other day, if I've seen anything."

Ashley Cox was practically counting the days until she would be able to get her driver's licence.

"I've been looking forward to this for months now," said Ashley. "So I was just waiting for my birthday to turn 16, and then this happened. So it really set me back. But there's nothing else I can do, other than just wait."

But the wait may soon be over. 

Ashley, Stephen and Kristen Cox. Sixteen-year-old Ashley is still waiting to take the written test, while 18-year-old Kristen was finally able to take the road test two weeks ago. (Submitted by Stephen Cox)

On its website, Service New Brunswick says: "A solution to offering the written test online is being worked on."

Valerie Kilfoil, the director of communications for SNB, said there will be an announcement later this week about resuming written tests. 

If last year is any indication, thousands of wannabe-drivers will be eagerly awaiting the announcement. 

Between March 17 and June 30, 2019, about 8,100 written tests were taken, said Kilfoil. About 60 to 70 per cent o the test-takers were high school students. 

When the pandemic began, 500 people had road tests scheduled. Those were immediately cancelled. But when road tests resumed earlier this month, those people were contacted first and rescheduled. 

While new drivers can now take their road tests, the province expects to have more information this week on when written tests will resume. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

The Cox family was hit twice by COVID-related driving delays. While Ashley continues to wait to write her test, Cox's oldest daughter, Kirsten, had been waiting for road tests to resume. 

For her, there may have been a silver lining in the delay, said Cox. 

He was able to take Kristen to practise driving around uptown Saint John — where the road test was given — at a time when traffic was at an all-time low. 

"So it was nice for her to get familiar with the roads there, and then she passed on the first try, which was great, but maybe if she hadn't gotten to practise, it might not have worked out that way."

He wishes Ashley could also take advantage of the still-reduced traffic. 

Cox isn't sure why the written tests didn't resume at the same time as road tests. He said it seems easier and safer to physical-distance in a classroom for a written test than sit in an enclosed vehicle with an examiner. Or why not put the written test online? he wonders. 

"You know, I fully understand the gravity of the situation," said Cox. "But when you go to grocery stores, and Walmart, Canadian Tire, and people are in close proximity, I don't understand why you can't go write a written test. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me compared to some of the other things that are being done right now."

Sixteen-year-old Julian Johansen-Morris and his mom, Joey, are frustrated that he's been unable to take the written driver's test since turning 16 in March. (Submitted by Joey Johansen-Morris)

Joey Johansen-Morris also understood the importance of shutting things down to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Her son turned 16 on March 24 and had already completed the classroom part of his driver's education program when everything came to a screeching halt. 

He's ready for his behind-the-wheel training, but without taking the written test, he can't proceed. 

"I completely understand why everything was shut down," she said. "But I figured they would have figured out how to do the written test safely long before now." 

She said people are used to the protocols — physical distancing, masks and proper hand hygiene — and those could be incorporated into the written test.

"I figured they would just figure it out and get on with it. But they didn't." 

She's disappointed that Julian didn't get to experience the teenage rite of passage of writing the driver's test as soon as he turned 16. 

New Brunswick has not offered written driving tests for three and a half months. During that same period last year, 8,000 tests were taken. (CBC)

"I would say he's disappointed — and a little discouraged. It's important to them. It makes them feel like they're growing up," said Johansen-Morris.

She wonders about the backlog and how long her son and others will have to wait to take the test. 

Kyleigh MacDonald, who turns 17 today, is also frustrated at how long it's taken to get her road test. 

"I didn't expect to have such a struggle when I joined my driving academy," said the Hampton resident. 

COVID sidelined some of her driver training and now she can't take the final test until July 15 — a date that was booked on June 15. 

"I will be glad to get my licence and will no longer have to deal with all of the struggles trying to get it," she said. 

Anyone wanting to get a scooter or moped licence is also out of luck for a while.

"As of right now, there is no testing for scooters and no date to start testing," said Kilfoil.

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