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COVID-19 has made Pa. driving tests easier, and business is booming. Safety experts are concerned.

Experts have concerns that the modified driving test, which is limited to a parking lot, doesn't test enough on-road skills.

Ronit Tehrani (left) and Edward Kraftmann (right), co-owners of Driven2Drive, work with a customer at Driven2Drive in Oaks, Pa., on Wednesday. Driven2Drive is a driver's education and independent test center that offers PennDOT certified driving tests.
Ronit Tehrani (left) and Edward Kraftmann (right), co-owners of Driven2Drive, work with a customer at Driven2Drive in Oaks, Pa., on Wednesday. Driven2Drive is a driver's education and independent test center that offers PennDOT certified driving tests.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Kaliesha Canady was surprised by her driving test in late June.

When the 26-year-old from Collingdale, in Delaware County, arrived at the test center, she found out the examiner wouldn’t be sitting in the car with her. What’s more, the test would take place entirely in the parking lot. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“With them being outside of the car, I was able to control my nerves and actually focus,” she said. “It was way easier overall.”

Canady took her test through Driven2Drive, a driving school and PennDOT-certified third-party licensing center with six locations across Southeastern Pennsylvania. The changes she faced during her test came after a June 2 announcement from PennDOT that driver’s skills tests would resume with modifications after the department had canceled more than 28,000 tests scheduled from mid-March to May in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We did that to maintain the integrity of the test, but also ensure safety of both our customers and our staff,” said Diego Sandino, a community relations coordinator for PennDOT.

» READ MORE: PennDot will resume giving driving tests, canceled by the coronavirus, on Tuesday

The new test consists of PennDOT examiners remaining outside of the vehicle for the entire test, evaluating drivers from a distance with both parties wearing protective masks, Sandino said. Because the examiner isn’t in the car with the driver, the test itself must be confined to a limited space such as a parking lot. Examiners have no way of evaluating driver behavior in real traffic conditions.

“It’s a very modified and abridged test,” said Ronit Tehrani, founder and co-owner of Driven2Drive. “This test is so streamlined that if they know how to park, they’re basically going to pass the test.”

Road tests in New Jersey remain largely similar to what they were before the pandemic. Examiners and drivers are both in the vehicle, wearing protective masks with windows rolled down, said William Connolly, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

Tehrani says that the backlog in testing availability at PennDOT brought a rush of drivers to her business, which can schedule tests in as little as two days but charges a fee for doing so. The current wait time for a test at PennDOT in the Southeastern region of the state is 25 to 30 days, said Sandino.

Since the changes, Tehrani has seen the pass rate for her tests increase. But that doesn’t surprise her. “There’s less of a chance for them to speed or blow a stop sign or fail due to judgment,” she said.

» READ MORE: If transportation is essential, why has taking a driving test been so difficult in Pennsylvania?

The pass rates for PennDOT have increased, too, from 62% for 16,500 tests in June 2019 to 74% for 22,500 tests in June 2020, according to Sandino. He also noted that the pass rate for third-party testing centers such as Driven2Drive increased from 82% in June 2019 to 89% in June 2020.

Flaura Winston, the founder and director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has concerns about what these changes mean for public safety. “My biggest fear is that we already had this problem where the leading cause of death for adolescents was motor-vehicle crashes,” she said. “And we’re doing something that could potentially make it riskier for them.”

In 2017, nearly 2,500 American teenagers died in motor vehicle accidents, and about 300,000 were injured. Costs related to these were about $13.1 billion, about 8% of total injury costs related to motor vehicle crashes. Novice teen drivers are at higher risk of being injured or killed in a crash than older and more experienced drivers.

Winston, who is also the co-founder of Diagnostic Driving, a driving education technology start-up, acknowledges that these statistics indicate that driving tests before the pandemic weren’t perfect, either. “I don’t necessarily think a driving test is a panacea,” she said. “But it’s all we have.”

» READ MORE: How to take care of your car if you’re not driving it a lot

Kaleem Marriott, a 35-year-old new driver from Haverford who also took his test through Driven2Drive, thinks that the permit test, a written questionnaire, is the real barrier to entry. “You can’t really just walk in off the street and pass it,” he said, noting that he found it more difficult than the road skills test.

That’s part of the reason for a recent bill from State Rep. Melissa Shusterman, a Democrat who represents parts of Chester and Montgomery Counties, that proposes waiving the road skills test for the remainder of the pandemic. Instead, “there would be a series of questions, and they would submit their practice hours, and it would give drivers a temporary license,” Shusterman said.

The representative clarified that she didn’t want to put the public at risk, but emphasized that its purpose is to allow young people to help their households and have “all hands on deck” by driving and running errands.

Marriott says his license allows him to help his 89-year-old aunt go to the doctor and with grocery shopping. “The amount of freedom I have now in comparison to what I had prior is night and day,” he said.

Shusterman also hopes to mitigate risk by enforcing stricter rules on hours or mileage for new drivers. But overall, Shusterman said of young drivers that “the help they can give outweighs the risk at this point.”

Winston doubts that a questionnaire would be able to evaluate drivers in the same way as on-road skills tests, but doesn’t want to rule out any options without solid evidence. “These are things we could evaluate with a small pilot study,” she said. “But we need to put in place systems to evaluate these changes, because we’re talking about a lot of deaths.”