Lynda Crew, 59, wants to drive her 2018 Jeep Renegade.
She doesn’t want to take her grandkids on SEPTA, she said, and rideshare is expensive. But when Crew can get behind the wheel has been up in the air. She needs to learn how to drive first.
Crew, living in the Northeast with her daughter, scheduled lessons with Driven2Drive in late March to prepare for a driver’s test in April. As the region came to a standstill amid the coronavirus, plans were put on hold.
“When I decide to get them,” she said, “then they want to shut the world down.”
Crew’s not the only one feeling frustrated. Ronit Tehrani and Edward Kraftmann, co-owners of Driven2Drive, a driving school with six locations certified by PennDot to administer road tests, feel similarly. Since transportation is deemed essential and rideshare, auto repair, car rentals, and SEPTA are up and running, they don’t understand why their firms have been barred from testing drivers for so long.
Why, Tehrani wonders, was a 30-minute Uber ride OK, but not a 10-minute road test? The business has had to cancel thousands of exams, she said, and is hemorrhaging financially.
“Helpless,” Tehrani said. “I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.”
Now their travail is nearing an end. With the decision by Gov. Tom Wolf to move all Pennsylvania counties to “yellow” status by June 5, the driving-exam and instruction businesses should be back on the road soon.
Their ability to test drivers dates to 2016 when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation started to offer noncommercial driving tests at certified businesses during a pilot program to give customers options outside of their local DMV, where waits can be long. Most of those sites are in Philadelphia’s five-county region and have been shut for weeks as nonessential businesses.
PennDot also closed its driver and photo license centers in response to the coronavirus and extended expiration dates to accommodate drivers. Limited services has been available at centers in “yellow” counties, but even those were not offering road tests.
The result has been a big backlog. PennDot canceled about 28,000 skills tests scheduled between mid-March through the end of May, PennDot spokesperson Diego Sandino said.
“We are currently evaluating a number of different factors related to testing and plan to resume testing as soon as possible,” he said in a statement. “Social distancing and reducing or limiting the need for face-to-face customer interactions will be used as much as possible.”
While stuck in “red” status, the Driven2Drive co-owners launched an online petition addressed to PennDot Acting Secretary Yassmin Gramian as a plea on behalf of all third-party sites to allow driver’s license testing to continue. It’s gathered more than 1,300 signatures.
“Getting a driver’s license, it’s not a luxury, and we feel it supersedes even the essential component,” Kraftmann said. “It’s critical.”
The calls have never stopped for the facilities. Sean Rumbaugh of Four Star Driving School LLC in Bucks County said he has been receiving a similar amount of inquiries now compared to when he was open. The calls are “the only silver lining,” having to cancel more than 300 tests after closing in March.
Driven2Drive’s Northeast location and Four Star Driving School were among the state’s list of denied exemption requests.
“It’s just utter frustration,” Rumbaugh said. “I understand that they have a lot of people applying for the waivers, but it’s just so random. … It’s totally arbitrary."
Yong Lu, owner of Success Driving School with a testing center in Northeast Philadelphia, didn’t apply for a waiver but shares the sentiment. Her business was “too small and too weak” to put up a fight with the state, she said.
“My frustration is, this virus won’t disappear soon, right?” Lu said. “It’s going to stay here for a long time, and our business cannot stop for a long time."
Bill Petaccio, owner of Petaccio’s Driving School in Royersford, has had another worry. His biggest concern — shared also by Rumbaugh — was over an apparent disconnect. Until recently, tests, overseen by the Department of Transportation, could happen once a county was in “yellow,” he said. But lessons, overseen by the Department of Education, could only happen in “green.”
The Department of Education relented. In-person instruction can resume in “yellow” or “green," according to a letter from a department official sent to private driver training school owners Thursday.
“I want to get open again, that’s what it comes right down to,” Petaccio said. “I want to be open. I want to be doing what I do.”