TAMPA — Remember taking the road test to get your first driver’s license?
White-knuckling the steering wheel while trying to parallel park? The examiner in the passenger seat next to you noting every fumbled flick of your blinker?
Like a lot of things in the time of a pandemic, that rite of passage may soon be a thing of the past.
Starting Monday, people who show up for their appointments at the Hillsborough Tax Collector’s branch offices that offer the behind-the-wheel road tests required to get a driver’s license will find a whole new protocol:
You must get your temperature taken and are encouraged to wear a mask. You must bring along a licensed driver who is at least 21 to be the passenger in your car during your test. (No, your passenger cannot be a driving instructor.) And the test-giver won’t be along for the ride.
Instead, a masked examiner will watch from outside your car on the driving course, communicating with you on your cell phone — either on speakerphone held by your passenger or on Bluetooth. Examiners will be careful to stay out of harm’s way, as blunders occasionally happen with nervous neophytes behind the wheel.
Tax Collector Doug Belden said he has consulted with Hillsborough’s health department during his office’s reopening and learned about a percentage of teenagers who may be asymptomatic but positive for COVID-19. (Many test-takers are young people in their teens and early 20s getting their first license.) Belden noted many of his test-givers are retirees.
“We’re utilizing the highest level of mitigation to reduce the risk of infection for both the employees and the customers,” he said.
Another change: If a driver veers off the track, the examiner blows a loud coach’s whistle, meaning the car should come to a complete stop. (This happens. Last year a young driver went off course and hit a parked car.)
In Pasco County, the tax collector’s office doesn’t have closed driving courses, instead conducting road tests on public streets. Remote testing makes sense on a closed course, since examiners could not as a practical matter watch drivers from U.S. 19 or Land O’ Lakes Boulevard.
“We don’t have that luxury. We don’t have the money. We don’t have the tracks,” said Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano.
But Pasco has adapted: Tests are by appointment. The examiner wears a mask and gloves, the driver gets a temperature check and wears a mask, and all car windows are open with the air conditioning on for the duration of the test.
So far, his office has only sent one person away with a temperature above 100 degrees.
“We’re taking every precaution possible.” Fasano said. "So far it’s worked out very well.”
Pinellas County, which has suspended road tests for now, is looking at remote testing as well.
Pinellas’ tests are also conducted on neighborhood streets, but two closed courses are expected to open this summer, said Amber Bradley, manager of customer care and communications for the tax collector. Remote testing is “a direction we’re looking at going,” she said.
The new remote procedures will also be used at state-operated driver license offices in Volusia, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Starting Monday in Hillsborough, the examiner outside the car will instruct the driver via cell phone on required maneuvers, including stopping quickly as if a squirrel ran in front of the car, backing up steadily, parking on a hill, straight-in parking and a turnabout, also known as the three-point turn, K-turn or Y-turn.
According to Cindy Brislin, Hillsborough’s manager of branch operations, training and quality assurance, parallel parking is no longer required.
“It might be intimidating having the examiner sitting next to you,” said Nancy Millan, the Hillsborough tax collector’s director of community relations, who remembers being nervous back when she took her test. "Maybe they’ll be more comfortable now because the person sitting next to them is someone they know.”
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