At a stop: New licenses and drivers education are on hold
New Hampshire teens are frustrated by the delay in getting their licenses due to the pandemic
By Kelly Burch via The Granite State News Collaborative
Anthony Witfoth, 18, walked into the Keene branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles in mid-March, excited to get his license. But when Witfoth handed over his paperwork to take the written portion of the test and book his road test, he got bad news: the computer system wasn’t working.
“They said they needed to talk to IT and I should call back,” Witfoth says. “Then, they closed.”
Weeks later, Witfoth, a senior at Keene High School, has no license and no idea when he’ll be able to get it. Learning to drive is one of the many rites-of-passage for New Hampshire teens that are being put on hold by the coronavirus and the accompanying shutdown. On March 18 the Department of Motor Vehicles suspended all road tests (other than for commercial driver’s licenses) for the duration of the governor’s stay–at–home order.
Rather than cruising around in the Mazda truck that he bought himself, Witfoth finds himself stuck at home or calling to arrange rides. It’s not how he envisioned senior spring.
“Life’s going to be different because I’m still going to need to find rides to work rather than driving,” Witfoth says.
The stay–at–home order has also had a major impact on driver’s education. In New Hampshire, teens can get their license at 16, but all drivers under 18 need to complete driver’s education. The program requires 30 hours of classroom education, 10 hours of driving with an instructor, and six hours of observing another student drive. The DMV issued new guidance allowing for online distance learning for the classroom portion of the education, but all driving lessons are on hold.
“It’s way too risky right now,” says Jack Wedmeyer, a driving instructor from Deerfield and owner of Jack’s Driving School. In a car — whether for a road test or driving lesson — there’s no way to social distance, so it makes sense to Wedneyer that the state shut down road tests and lessons. While it’s beneficial for teens to be able to drive, it’s not essential.
“It’s nice when they have it, but it isn’t like they’re going anywhere, especially now,” Wedneyer says.
Still, many families plan on teens getting their licenses as soon as possible to help with scheduling, especially in rural areas with little public transportation.
Russ Harding of Seacoast Driving School in Plaistow, has had at least one parent reach out, concerned about their child being able to drive to school in the fall. That teen is attending a tech school that doesn’t offer busing. Harding wasn’t able to offer much reassurance.
“As long as new licenses are not being issued there’s not much we can do,” Harding says.
With students still completing the classroom portion of drivers ed, Harding and his wife, Stephanie, are trying to figure out how they will handle a backlog of students who need to complete driving hours. Although the state has extended the timeframe that students have to complete their driving hours, most students are in a rush to get licensed.
“We’re going to have to prioritize students in order of class,” Harding says. In some special circumstances — like the student who needs to drive to school — he may be able to help get lessons done quickly, he added.
Some parents are using extra time at home to teach their teens how to drive themselves. Paul Royal, of Exeter, has been taking his son Andrew, 15, on drives along the seacoast where normally busy roads are much quieter. He plans to take Andrew for a drive into Boston, where he can practice the route without the usual traffic.
“It’s been kind of a treat for us,” Royal says. “My son and I have had an excuse to go out even though we don’t have a destination.”
Royal, who has a background as a winter driving instructor, has also taken advantage of large, empty parking lots to safely teach Andrew about emergency braking, swerving and other maneuvers.
“I can do some real actual emergency training, not just street driving,” he says.
Other teens, like Noah Macie, 15, of Claremont, are frustrated by the delay in being able to drive. Macie turns 16 at the end of May and was planning to get his license so that he could go fishing and help his grandparents with shopping.
“It’s unfair that they think it’s non-essential because it is [essential] to a lot of people,” Macie says.
However, it’s exactly the most at-risk family members of students that Wedneyer says he will be thinking of when he reopens driving lessons.
“Let’s say your kid is asymptomatic and gives it to me,” he says. “I don’t get it, but who knows how many kids I just gave it to. And if just one of them has their grandparents living with them…”
That’s why Wedneyer is already planning ahead to minimize risk behind the wheel when lessons resume. He normally has students disinfect the cars as part of their lessons, but now he’s going a step further.
“I’ve asked all the students to make sure they have masks and gloves to go driving with us when this thing opens up,” he says.
Until then, he’s happy to have students off the road.
“We can wait this out,” he says. “Teens don’t need their licenses right now.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.