Cancelled road tests, looming backlog leaving would-be Ontario drivers feeling 'hopeless'

Newcomers and recent grads alike are finding themselves shut out of the job market and inconvenienced as the COVID-19 pandemic has shelved road tests. Tests are set to restart in mid-June, but nearly 400,000 have been cancelled during the pandemic — half of them in the GTA.

Tests set to restart in mid-June, but nearly 400,000 cancelled during pandemic

Vishwa Patne is seen here holding her foreign driver's licence near her home in Etobicoke on May 26, 2021. She's been unable to get her Ontario licence during the pandemic, forcing her to bike and use public transit despite knowing how to drive. (Katie Swyers/ CBC)

Vishwa Patne just graduated from a Toronto university with three job offers in her field, but she had to turn them all down. 

Why? She can't legally drive in Canada despite being fully licensed in the United Arab Emirates since 2017.

Patne, who studied accounting at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus, said all of the job offers she received required her to work in person and are inaccessible by public transit. She can't get her Ontario driver's licence because of the pandemic — she can't book a road test. 

"I felt pretty hopeless because I'm getting a job offer which is pretty good, it pays me well, but I'm not able to take it up," Patne told CBC Toronto. 

Nearly 400,000 road tests have been cancelled in Ontario since the start of the pandemic, with more than half of those cancellations in the Greater Toronto Area alone. It's making life difficult for students, newcomers and many others who need a licence to find work in a competitive job market.

While student drivers can still get their learner's permits, they can't drive by themselves until passing a G2 road test. Others are stuck paying higher insurance rates or shut out from jobs requiring a full licence. 

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In Patne's case, she received her Ontario learner's permit, or G1, in 2019. She was eligible for her G2 road test a year later, but the pandemic hit before she could take it. She's booked a test four different times, but they've all been cancelled.

Drive test centres are tentatively slated to open June 14 under Step 1 of Ontario's roadmap for reopening, but the road test backlog is extensive. 

How bad is the backlog?

Azhar Malik, a GTA-based driving instructor who spoke to CBC Toronto, estimates the road test backlog might not be cleared until 2022 — depending on how many examiners the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) hires and how they accommodate students. 

In January, MTO announced it was hiring 84 new drive-test examiners to help clear the backlog, but only 35 examiners have been hired so far.

Driving instructor Azhar Malik has been unable to teach students for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s frustrated that drive test centres will resume road tests before Ontario allows driving schools to reopen. (Martin Trainor/ CBC)

Most drive test centres in the GTA are booking G2 road test appointments for October and November 2021. Tests before that are already fully booked.

In a normal year, Malik says at least 800 students from his school in Richmond Hill, Ont. would get their driver's licence. During the two months that Top Choice Driving School was able to operate during the pandemic, he estimates only 80 students got their licence.

Road tests resuming but driving schools still closed

While non-commercial road tests will tentatively resume in June, driving schools like Malik's are in Step 2 of Ontario's reopening plan. 

Malik says the distinction doesn't make sense. 

"Obviously, the examiner sits in the passenger seat like an instructor," he said. 

"I don't know what's the difference between instruction and examination at the moment." 

He says his students are trying to accommodate themselves by renting cars or practising with their parents to avoid rebooking their June road tests since he can't teach them in person.

According to an emailed response from the Ministry of Health, current restrictions and those outlined in the reopening plan "are based on a general assessment of risk based on the best advice of public health officials." 

In-person driving instruction and testing are currently allowed for commercial drivers. 

Patne says she would like in-car instruction before her July road test, but she's given up trying to prepare at this point. In the meantime, she uses a bike to get around. 

Would-be Toronto drivers face difficult situations

She's far from alone. CBC Toronto spoke with a number of other GTA residents all facing difficult situations because they can't legally drive.   

Megan Dy, 23, went back to school to study nursing at Ryerson University last fall after having trouble finding a job during the pandemic. Now she's struggling to find work to pay for school.

"It's just impending doom," said Dy. "I've been jobless since February."

She has savings but after helping her brother pay for his school, she doesn't have enough to cover her upcoming semester. 

The province has cancelled all in-vehicle passenger tests since April 3. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

She's hoping to work as a courier, a good-paying job that's in high demand and has less exposure to COVID-19 than other service industry jobs. However, she can't drive alone with her current G1 licence. Her next road test is set for August 3 — but the last three were all cancelled, and Dy fears this one will be as well.

"People are getting their first vaccination, so I'm still hopeful, but cautiously, I suppose. I just don't want to get my heart broken again," said Dy.

As the only driver in her family with any kind of licence, Dy also wants to help shave an hour off her mom's long commute to work from their Scarborough neighbourhood, where Dy says the public transit options are bad. 

Ambreen Iqbal, 31, is nervous about taking public transit during the pandemic. Since moving to Canada in February 2020, neither she nor her husband have been able to get their driver's licence. 

She says it's making things like apartment hunting, grocery shopping and travelling to medical appointments difficult. The frustrating part: her husband, like Patne, can drive and has a foreign driver's licence. His road test has been cancelled twice. 

"Getting their licence is one of the first things that people do when they come to Canada," said Patne.

"Not being able to do that … life becomes hard."

With files from Angelina King