Wisconsin giving teens licenses without driving tests

Everybody gets an A? That’s what it sounds like in the Badger State this month. With the DMV (and many other government offices) being shut down or operating with reduced services, there’s been a backlog of teenagers waiting to get their driver’s license. Road tests were shut down in March to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus, so the licensing process was effectively shut down as well. But starting next week, Wisconsin will allow new drivers to receive a “provisional license” without demonstrating that they can safely operate a vehicle. What could possibly go wrong? (CBS Minnesota)

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will soon allow 16 and 17-year-olds to get their driver’s license without completing a road test.

DMVs stopped doing road tests in mid-March because of COVID-19.

Now, WisDOT is waiving road tests amid the pandemic, beginning May 11, according to an announcement on Tuesday.

People under the age of 18 who have completed their required training and have the endorsement of a parent or guardian will be able to get a probationary driver license without completing a test.

To be fair, they aren’t going to suddenly start handing out licenses like candy to anyone who asks. There are some requirements in place in order to qualify. New drivers under the age of 18 will need to complete a driver’s education course and obtain a learner’s permit for at least six months without any violations. They will also need to get the signature of a parent or guardian sponsoring them after completing a minimum of 30 hours of practice with them in the vehicle.

With all of those requirements in place, I suppose this probably isn’t as bad of a situation as it looked like at first glance. But it still raises a couple of questions. For example, what do they mean by a “probationary license?” Will it expire once testing resumes at the DMV? (That’s expected to happen on May 25th.) If so, then they’re not doing anything about their massive backlog problem. They’d just be pushing it down the road.

Wisconsin will have to wait and see what the results of this little experiment look like, but we may be about to see yet another example of how well Americans can do without certain government services. If there’s a sudden spike in instances of teenagers mowing down pedestrians, then it will be obvious that the tests were important and the people who made this decision will be pilloried. But if everything continues as normal, will there be any reason to go back to mandating these driving tests? If driver education programs and parental guidance and training are good enough to assure public safety during the pandemic, why wouldn’t they be good enough during more “normal” times?

That may wind up being the case for all sorts of systems in both the public and private sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to do many things in different ways than we used to. Employers are learning the limits of how many employees can adequately perform their jobs from home. Why go back to paying for larger offices and all the overhead costs they entail if your company can accomplish its mission with more people working remotely? And much like the driver’s license situation in Wisconsin, there are any number of licenses, regulations and other government “services” requiring us to jump through plenty of hoops. If we can suspend those portions of the government’s involvement in our lives and suffer no ill effects, why would we return to the old way of doing things?

It feels like this is said on a daily basis now, but the novel coronavirus is changing us. Some of those changes are clearly awful. But it’s just possible that we may learn more about what we’re really capable of and do things differently going forward. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.