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Orlando Sentinel: Tougher driving test trips up some younger Floridians

Orlando Sentinel

By Susan Jacobson

Aug. 18, 2015

Novice driver José Lopez, 21, was hoping to leave the Orange County Tax Collector’s Office with a learner’s permit in hand.

Instead, Lopez last week became one of thousands of Floridians who have failed the revamped written driver test.

“I never studied,” said Lopez, a first-time test taker. “I just went in there and did it.”

The new test has ignited controversy after more than 80 percent of those who took it flunked in April and May 2014, the first two months of its gradual rollout, and failure rates remained above 70 percent through last year. In recent months, however, the passing rate has steadily improved.

Highway-safety Executive Director Terry Rhodes said at a Florida Cabinet meeting this month that the test could be perceived as more difficult. It’s designed to get people to think about what they would do in a real-life situation, such as getting cut off by another motorist, rather than memorizing numbers or facts, she said.

“Now it’s harder, which, you know what, as a driver I’m OK with because I want these people to know the rules and laws,” said Paula Prevatt, manager of the Seminole County Tax Collector’s Casselberry office.

Lopez said he was planning to hit the books and try again this week, which is just what the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles advises.

“Hopefully, they’ll pass the test, but more importantly, hopefully they’ll be a better driver,” said department chief of staff Leslie Palmer. “That’s the goal.”

The exam has five sign questions and 45 questions that ask how a driver would respond in real-life situations. The questions are chosen randomly from a pool of at least 500. Everything is computerized.

The department’s goal is for 70 percent of test takers to pass.

Steven Starr, 19, is one of the success stories. The Hunter’s Creek man said he studied for about two weeks by reviewing the state driver’s manual and taking free online practice tests. He used a tad less than 15 minutes of the hour allotted and still passed.

“I can’t in good conscience send him out on the road and not have educated him,” said Starr’s dad, Todd Lee, 42, who drove him to the Tax Collector’s Office last week for the exam. “People need to be better informed when they’re driving a 3,000-pound machine that can kill.”

The test replaced one that had been used for two decades. Copies could be bought online, and some of the questions could be obtained for free because so many people had taken it and shared their experience, highway-safety officials said.

The old test consisted of 20 questions about road signs and 20 questions about traffic rules, such as how many feet a driver should stop from a railroad crossing. It didn’t cover hazards that are common now, such as texting and driving, because the technology was in its infancy back then.

“As laws and trends change, we need to bring it up to the times,” Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Nancy Rasmussen said.

The failure rate on the new exam has dropped steadily this year from 69.1 percent in January to 34.5 percent in July. Palmer said she thinks the word has gotten out that people need to study to get a passing grade of at least 80 percent.

The improvement also may be related to the rephrasing or elimination of questions that many people flunked, such as how long a hitch could be on a trailer, said David Jordan, chief deputy in the Lake County Tax Collector’s Office.

“Some of the silly questions were caught and thrown out,” he said.

Teenagers and young adults are the primary takers of the test, which is mandatory for first-time drivers who don’t have a license from another state. Drivers from other countries also must pass. A road test is required, too.

Speeding is the violation inexperienced drivers are ticketed for most often, Palmer said, so that subject will be featured more prominently in the driver’s handbook as it is revised.

The current 62-page manual is printed in tiny type that addresses sex-offender registration on page 21 but doesn’t get to speed limits until page 36. A printable, 104-page version is online.

The update aims to eliminate bureaucratic language, introduce more graphics, put the most important information up front and make everything more accessible on mobile devices, Palmer said. An abbreviated version also is being developed.

Officials hope the new materials will appeal more to younger people and be clear to those whose first language is not English. To that end, they’ll use everyday expressions such as “hit the brakes” in place of government-speak such as, “engage your brakes,” Palmer said.

Rhodes said her staff would periodically assess whether the content is clear and relevant. If there were a spike in underage drinking, for instance, the manual would increase emphasis on that topic.

The ultimate measure of success, officials say, would be a reduction in the number of crashes. In 2013, the latest year with data available, 38,347 teenage drivers were involved in crashes in Florida. Fifty-seven died, and 9,495 were hurt.

“Anytime that we can educate a young teen, that is our primary mission,” Rhodes told the Cabinet.

sjacobson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-540-5981

Copyright © 2015, Orlando Sentinel

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