TALLAHASSEE — Floridians are failing the state's written driver's license test in record numbers with three out of every five flunking through the first six months of 2015.
State officials expected some applicants would have trouble adjusting to a new written test implemented in January but acknowledge it erupted into an unexpected problem when they discovered more than 80 percent of drivers in some counties were unable to pass.
That has prompted state officials to dig through the test looking for flawed questions and removing them from future exams to try to lift test scores, said Boyd Dickerson-Walden, director of the division of motor services for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
"What we are doing is making adjustments to them or leaving them out," Dickerson-Walden said. He insists it is not a bid to make the test easier. It is more about pulling out questions that may not be clearly worded.
Even with those fixes, more than half of test takers in June either flunked or gave up, leaving Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet far shy of the state's goal of a 70 percent passing rate.
Failing can be a time-consuming and expensive problem for drivers, but it's a financial boon for private companies that offer practice courses and written tests online. Also reaping a payoff from higher failures and retakes: the Nevada vendor paid to develop the harder test, which receives more than $4 every time someone takes the test from a private company in Florida.
Just 41 percent of the state's 310,000 test takers could pass the one-hour exam during the first six months of 2015, according to records provided by the DHSMV. That is nearly 20 percentage points behind the pass rate before the test was overhauled in January. And the numbers have been even worse in small counties like Lake and Holmes where more than four out of five test takers failed early in the year.
"It was a shock to the system," said Dale Hoffman of the Hillsborough County Tax Collector's Office, which has seen only 42 percent of people pass the written exam through the first six months of 2015. "We are doing everything we can to warn new drivers to be prepared when you come in to take it."
The overhaul of what was viewed as an outdated exam came at a time when Florida's crash numbers for teen drivers had been getting worse. In 2010, teens were involved in more than 26,000 traffic accidents, according to the DHSMV. That grew by 35 percent to more than 36,180 by 2013, the most recent numbers available. And since 2010, an average of 78 teen drivers have been killed on Florida roads annually.
Dickerson-Walden said the state did not set out to make the test harder. "The intention was to make sure that people had the knowledge in order to learn how to drive," he said.
What drivers say
For Lina Acosta of Brandon, the state went too far in toughening things up. She failed last week taking the exam at the Falkenberg Road branch of the Hillsborough Tax Collector's Office.
Acosta, 39, of the Dominican Republic, said the Spanish translation on her audio device was a different dialect from what she is used to. That and ambient noise distracted her, she said, with her daughter Yohanna Munoz translating for her.
"She could barely concentrate,'' Munoz said.
Jamyia Cross was less intimidated, breezing through the 50 test questions in less than half an hour. The 21-year-old South Tampa woman, applying for her first driver's license, said she found the test easy. She did prepare by studying the Florida Driver's Handbook and taking online practice tests.
"Most of it was basic common knowledge,'' Cross said.
Besides tinkering with the test questions to deal with the low scores, the state is updating the state's driver's handbook and trying to make it more accessible on smartphones to encourage younger people to review it more frequently.
A big part of the problem, Dickerson-Walden said, was how simple the previous test was and how easy it was to buy exact copies of the test online to assure passage.
"I think the word is starting to get out that they are going to have to study," he said.
The old test, used for at least 20 years, had 20 written questions and a separate 20 road sign question quiz. The new one has one 50-question exam that mixes both, and drivers must score 80 percent or better to pass.
The 50 questions come from a pool of more than 1,000 to assure tests are different for each driver and limit chances of fraud. Those new questions require people to know about safe driving distances, where they will find slippery roads, specifics of the state's texting and driving law, and what should happen if four cars arrive at a four-way stop sign at the same time.
"It makes you think through scenarios, rather than regurgitating statistics or facts," Dickerson-Walden said.
Gov. Scott and the Florida Cabinet unanimously agreed to allow the changes to the test in March 2014.
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano said he was concerned about high failing rates when the test first hit in January, but he said it was hard to argue with wanting to address the state's teen driver accident rates.
"I think it's a good thing to make certain young people really know what they are doing when they get behind the wheel," Fasano said.
In Pasco, like many counties, the constant tweaking of the test this year has helped. About 55 percent of would-be Florida drivers passed the test in June, up from 33 percent in February.
The tougher test has had "goofy" questions that have likely contributed to the high failure rates, said David Jordan of the Lake County Tax Collectors Office. He said he is all for making teens better drivers, but said asking questions about the proper length of a trailer hitch or what a brown fluid under a parked car might mean — as some of the tests have quizzed — might have been too much.
Lake County had fewer than 19 percent passing in January — the worst number in the state. But scores have steadily risen since. Now 57 percent of its drivers are passing the test.
Still, other counties continue to struggle. Palm Beach County and Hendry County have not had even 40 percent of drivers pass in any month since the new test was implemented.
Profiting from failure
Failure can be costly to would-be drivers. But it can add up to a financial windfall for the state, for online schools offering tests and for the Nevada company that drafted the harder test, Solutions Thru Software.
Driving tests taken through a tax collector's office are free for the first test. But retests require $16.25 in fees.
Test taken through online schools can cost drivers between $19.95 and $70. And the state's high failure rate is only helping them draw customers. Some are even using the state's failure rate to sell their products and study guides.
"The Florida Driver's Manual is over 100 pages long and 72% of all people taking the test have failed in the last year," warns one site called DMVcheatsheets.com, which offers drivers their study guide for $10, despite the state's 104-page handbook being free.
The failures are also good news for the test makers. Solutions Thru Software makes more money with each additional exam taken through third-party test providers, like online driving schools, where nearly one-third of the tests have been taken this year.
The company makes $4.42 apiece on the first half million tests taken in Florida through private companies. State officials say the state has already had more than 85,000 tests taken that way since February. The state pays Solutions Thru Software nothing for tests administered by tax collectors' offices.
The number of tests administered in Florida in 2015 is on pace to surpass last year. In 2014, the state administered 601,000 of the old "Rules of the Road" 20-question exam. This year, through six months, the state already has had 310,000 tests according to data provided by DHSMV spokesman John Lucas.
Solutions Thru Software officials declined to comment on the Florida contract, saying state officials require all questions about the driver's license testing to be handled by the state.
While the Florida system is the biggest contract the company has had, according to its website, Solutions Thru Software has worked with other states on driver's license testing software, including Montana, Massachusetts and North Dakota.
The company won the Florida contract over two other companies — Juno Systems and Morpho Trust USA — based on higher scores on a bid evaluation process in August 2012, state records show. One of the deciding factors in Solutions Thru Software's selection was the company's price proposal, which got it the maximum rating in the bid scoring tabulations compared with its competitors.
While Solutions Thru Software helped with initial questions for the test, the revamping is being handled entirely by the state, Dickerson-Walden said.
Despite the state still facing troubling failure rates, that's not stopping the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles from setting lofty goals for improving the scores.
DHSMV chief of staff Leslie Palmer told aides to Scott and the Cabinet that the agency has committed to reaching a passing rate of 70 percent on the new test this year. However, in almost the same breath, Palmer told the aides it's an unlikely goal given no one at the department could ever recall a time when more than 63 percent of people could pass even the older test.
"It's an aspirational goal," Palmer said.
Times staff writer Philip Morgan contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.