Frustratingly refreshing the state Department of Motor Vehicles’ scheduling website has become the Smith family’s daily routine — and disappointment.
Like generations of Long Island teenagers, 17-year-old Nicholas Smith of Lindenhurst is eager to perform a rite of suburban passage: learning to drive, getting behind the wheel, taking the family car for a spin.
But first, there’s getting a learner permit, which requires passing New York State’s 20 multiple-choice-question test covering driving basics, such as road signs. And Nicholas can’t seem to get an appointment.
“I’m at the age where I need the freedom and responsibility to be able to drive,” he said. “I want to start to grow up.”
Despite an announcement in September by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office that the learner permit test would be universally available everywhere online starting that autumn — “These online options will make it more convenient for New Yorkers to access the services they need, while reducing congestion in the DMV offices and helping continue our shared progress in stopping the spread of this virus,” he is quoted as saying — in-person testing is still New York State’s only available method to take the exam.
That means taking the exam — during the coronavirus pandemic — at school if it’s offered or at one of the DMV’s bricks-and-mortar locations, which since last year have been operating at reduced occupancy and by appointment only to halt the virus’ spread.
It’s unclear what happened with the online plans for learner permits.
DMV spokeswoman Lisa Koumjian said the online test was “a limited pilot program last fall” that has since ended.
“The DMV is evaluating the results of that pilot and expects to offer the online test more widely in the coming weeks, which will significantly reduce the time spent in the office to complete the permit application process, and allow for far more permit reservations,” she wrote in an email.
But Cuomo’s news release Sept. 18 announcing the program promised that “following the successful launch of this pilot, the online option will become available to all permit applicants later this fall.”
Koumjian did not explain why the online option did not become available in the fall.
Several states already offer online learner permit tests, including Arizona, which began offering the service in 2018, and Iowa and Minnesota, which began doing so last year during the pandemic.
A permit, available starting at age 16, is the first step toward learning to drive in New York. Practicing driving also requires supervision by a licensed driver 21 years old or older who must be seated in the front seat with the driver-to-be.
DMV offices were closed across the state soon after the pandemic began to strike the region. It wasn’t until summer that Long Island DMV offices reopened, and expiration dates were extended for licenses and nondriver IDs.
The DMV had already been overwhelmed since late 2019, when New York State began allowing immigrants living in the United States illegally to apply for driver’s licenses under the so-called “Green Light Law.” Queues snaked around the exterior of DMV offices for weeks well into 2020.
Then, for months at the start of the pandemic in New York, there were no learner permit exams or road tests at all, creating a backlog.
Koumjian said that the DMV gave the same number of learner permit tests in 2019 as in 2020, despite the closure from March through June: 437,778 permit tests in 2019 and 420,123 in 2020. She said “we have extended office hours including opening on Saturdays,” and that the pilot for online exams “allowed for a greater number to be tested.”
For now, though, those seeking learner permits must test in person. There is mandatory face-masking, social distancing and increased cleaning of offices, she said.
“For social distancing, we certainly have to limit the number of people in our testing rooms,” she said, adding: “I don’t think people would want us to cram everyone in.”
A program continues that allows schools to offer the test, but it must be completed on a computer at the school building with a staff member monitoring.
At least one school has ceased giving the learner permit test.
Jericho High School stopped soon after the pandemic hit, said assistant principal Dagoberto Artiles.
“It’s a deal we had with the DMV. But we have not done it since the pandemic began,” Artiles said. “That has posed a problem for kids. There’s a backlog; we have a lot of kids waiting for that appointment.”
The school had to stop due to limitations on the number of students in a classroom, Artiles said. Instead, Jericho advises students not to wait until they are 16 to begin looking for DMV openings, but rather to search months in advance for an appointment.
As for the Smiths, Nicholas’ mom, Nicole, 49, said Nicholas’ school isn’t giving the test, and he can’t take driver’s ed without a valid permit.
She said several other family members and friends are also helping to look for exam slots via the DMV website for Nicholas, covering every location in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
So far, no luck. And she said a DMV representative told her appointments wouldn’t open up until March and would probably fill up quickly anyway.
“My son is going to be 18 in June. I can’t put him behind the wheel of a car when he doesn’t have a permit,” she said, adding: “It’s super frustrating. We’re in a holding pattern. There’s literally nothing we can do. I’m not looking to put blame anywhere, but somebody’s got to think about these kids.”
Nicholas said he plans to start at an HVAC trade school after high school graduation this spring, and he hopes he will be able to get his driver’s license in time to drive himself to classes.
Said his mom: “If I don’t have to drive him there, that’s even better.”