Long wait times and far out appointments frustrate Minnesotans seeking drivers licenses

Published 5:01 pm Friday, August 11, 2023

By Olivia Stevens

Nearly a year after the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services department took steps aimed at reducing wait times for behind the wheel exams, appointments still are hard to come by.

Officials from Driver and Vehicle Services say continuing staffing shortages are largely to blame for the struggle to nail down an appointment, with backlogs from the pandemic making matters worse.

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Laura Riehle-Merrill said by the time her daughter CJ’s 16th birthday rolled around this month, she knew she’d have to take whatever appointment came their way.

“I have a group of friends in town where, you know, we were all moms with kids who are roughly the same ages. And so, I’ve been hearing, ‘oh, my gosh, you need to get ready, you need to plan for this,’” she said. “This is frustrating. This is a challenge. But we’re going to get CJ to her test.”

Riehle-Merrill ended up finding an appointment in Fairmont, a two-hour drive away from the family’s home in Northfield. She said because she and her husband had flexible schedules, they were able to make the trek.

But Riehle-Merrill recognized that what represented an inconvenience to her family might be a serious barrier to others.

Noella Merchant considers herself one such case. The 26-year-old said she’s held her learner’s permit since age 18, since she never needed to drive by herself. But when she became pregnant eight months ago, her perspective shifted.

“I really need to get my license before the baby’s here,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel safe to not be able to drive somewhere by myself if I need to.”

Merchant started checking for appointments around February. Months later, she hadn’t found any convenient options. She said almost every available slot was at a test location more than a two-hour drive away from her home in the Twin Cities suburb of Mounds View. As she saves up paid leave for the baby’s arrival, a drive to Redwood Falls or Duluth on a work day doesn’t feel possible.

Last fall, the DVS implemented several changes to streamline the process. They shortened the window to make appointments from six months to 30 days to prevent cancellations and rolled out a waitlist to notify people when an appointment becomes available at their testing site of choice.

The DVS said about 60 percent of those on the drivers test waitlist last month received notification of available appointments.

“Here in the metro, appointments are pretty tight,” said Deputy Director Tony Anderson. “But we’re consistently adding staff and looking at how we can improve the services we provide to the citizens of Minnesota.”

Anderson also said the DVS keeps three metro centers, Plymouth, Arden Hills and Eagan, staffed on weekends. All other test sites are only open on weekdays.

But according to state Sen. Karin Housley, complaints from driving students prove the updates haven’t had the intended effect. She plans to push legislation next session that would allow third-party testers to give driving exams.

The third-party testers would likely be those who teach driving, like instructor Scott Featherstone.

While Featherstone understands the rush to get on the road, he warns against any measure that could sacrifice safety. He says examiners already score students differently depending on the testing center. And he worries bringing outside companies into the testing sphere could loosen standards.

He said he also worries about conflict of interest.

“You hate to say it, but you pay to play, right? If I get paid this much money, I’ll do my job. But it also benefits me to have that child pass,” he said.

Housley says she understands these concerns but points to successes of this type of system in other states like Texas and Colorado. The Stillwater Republican added the change would align with how Minnesota tests for bus driving licenses.

“They haven’t been able to fix the problem in two years when they said they were going to, and this is an easy fix that could help them out,” she said. “So I don’t know why they’re not trying it.”

Featherstone’s student, Josie Stage recently finished her third and final behind-the-wheel lesson with A+ Driving School in White Bear Lake. She’s now impatiently waiting for her birthday in September, when she’ll be eligible to get that brand new license.

“I want to be able to go places that I want without having to bother my parents about driving me there,” she said.

After checking the website almost daily, Noella Merchant was recently able to nab an appointment in Chaska, only a 40-minute drive away, in the nick of time.

“It was kind of funny sitting there to wait to actually get my license afterwards. And there’s, you know, all the teenagers with their parents, and I’m sitting there eight months pregnant,” she said. “We all somehow got appointments, so lucky us.”