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License center closures cause bump in the road for drivers

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An ISD 518 school bus travels down a gravel road in this file photo. With drivers license exam centers closed in a temporary shift to regional hubs, it poses challenges for bus and trucking companies to schedule road tests for Class D licensure. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Local teens wanting to get their driver’s permit or license — as well as adults required to take either the written exam or driving skills test — must now drive at least an hour out of their way to get the all-important licensure.

In mid-March, driver’s license exam stations across Minnesota shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seventy-nine of them still have not reopened, and it’s uncertain when — or if — they will.

The impact is felt by residents in the far southwest corner of Minnesota, where drivers and those seeking a license must travel to one of 15 regional exam stations (the nearest of which are in Marshall, Fairmont and Mankato) to complete an exam or road test.

In Worthington, the driver’s license exam station was open one day a week — for a little more than six hours each Tuesday — prior to COVID-19. On Wednesdays, examiners were in Luverne for four and a half hours, and on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, they were in Windom, Pipestone and Slayton, respectively, for just an hour and 15 minutes.

Emma Corrie, director of driver and vehicle services for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, sent letters to county license centers in mid-June stating that examiners will need to administer more than 81,000 road tests between June 1 and Oct. 31, including rescheduling tests for nearly 19,000 Minnesotans who had Class D road tests cancelled due to COVID-19.

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Keeping examiners at regional hubs provides greater efficiency and improved safety, Corrie noted.

“We understand the impact of closing exam stations on your community,” Corrie said. “We will evaluate reopening additional exam stations in late summer.”

On Monday, DPS Public Information Officer Megan Leonard shared that Driver & Vehicle Services is averaging 630 road tests per day at the 14 open exam stations (The St. Paul station does not offer road tests) and has completed 9,015 Class D road tests since resuming appointments May 26. Those numbers compare to 566 road tests per day and 7,926 Class D road tests completed per day during the same time period in 2019, when all exam stations were open.

“The remaining exam stations will remain closed in order to be more efficient and expand the number of tests offered on a daily basis,” Leonard said in an email to The Globe. “Focusing on 15 regional exam stations allows examiners to remain at one exam station and use the time they would have spent traveling conducting road tests.”

Leonard said the closed exam stations aren’t permanent. However, DVS is focusing on the 15 regional exam stations until further notice.

Nobles County Auditor-Treasurer Joyce Jacobs, who oversees the county’s license center, said while she understands the state’s decision to use regional hubs to get through the backlog of exams and road tests, it poses an inconvenience.

“For every parent or guardian who has to get their teen a permit or driver’s license, you almost have to take a half-day off work,” Jacobs said.

With the backlog, she said it could take several weeks for individuals to secure an exam or road test, and once they have passed those exams, they have to return to their home county to actually get their license. In Nobles County, appointments are booked out 14 days on the county’s website, co.nobles.mn.us .

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License Center Technician Patti DeBates said the closure of the Worthington exam station is most difficult for individuals needing a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), and Chris Kielblock of Bud’s Bus Service agreed. Kielblock is responsible for hiring drivers to operate school buses for Independent School District 518.

While he hasn’t hired any new people yet to drive school bus this fall, Kielblock is definitely concerned about them getting their driving skills test completed and endorsements approved before the start of the school year.

“Even before COVID’s effects on the temporary closures, getting appointments to do any skills testing at the Worthington location — they were three, four, even five weeks out in making appointments,” Kielblock said. “Even at that point we were having to go to Fairmont … on a few occasions. We’ve gone to Marshall a couple of times, and we’ve even, a couple of times, gone to Mankato just to get an appointment two weeks out instead of six.”

Kielblock said there’s been a need to expand the road or skills testing hours in Worthington for quite a while. Now, moving testing to a regional hub — even temporarily — is a “huge disservice not only to our industry, but to our communities as a whole,” he said.

To garner both the CDL and school bus, passenger and air brake endorsements is about a six-week process, Kielblock said. Any new applicants receive information on the driving test, and are paired with a veteran bus driver for behind-the-wheel training. Add scheduling difficulties and drive time for testing an hour from Worthington, and it’s going to create even more delays.

“It’s not making it easy on any of us,” said Kielblock, noting he will have to block out more than half a day for an experienced bus driver to get an individual and bus to an out-of-town skills test.

Kielblock said he’s sent messages to both the Driver & Vehicle Safety director and regional supervisor, letting them know of his concerns on the potential long-term closure of the Worthington exam center.

“We’ve just got to make our opinions known,” he said.

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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