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 became 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.
Statewide through the first six months of this year, 56 per cent of first-time testers failed. In Miami-Dade the failure rate was slight better at 55 percent but in Broward County is was worse at 59 percent.
The overhaul of what was viewed as an outdated exam came at a time when Florida’s crash numbers for teen drivers had been getting worse.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 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.
For Lina Acosta of Brandon, the state went too far in toughening things up. She failed last week.
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, 21, of South Tampa, was less intimidated, breezing through the 50 test questions in less than half an hour. Cross, 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.
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 smart phones 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.
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.
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 from $19.95 to $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.
Times Bay Times staff writer Philip Morgan contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org
Who has to take written test?
Anyone applying for an original Florida driver’s license is required to take the written test. However, drivers with a valid license from other U.S. states and territories plus those from Canada, France and South Korea do not have to take the written test unless their driving ability is questioned. People seeking a license renewal do not have to take the exam.
Florida officials urge drivers to study the state’s driver’s license handbook and sample test questions before taking the new written exam. Both are available online at tbtim.es/ldc. Practice questions are also available through a list of state-approved test administrators attbtim.es/ldj.
Here are a dozen questions that have been used on Florida driving tests so far this year. The state has not said if any of these questions have been replaced or will be replaced as they continue to rejigger the test to react to high failure rates.
1. The Florida law exempts all of the following from the seat belt requirements except:
b. An employee of a newspaper home delivery service, while delivering newspapers on subscription routes
c. Passenger cars manufactured after 1968
d. Farm equipment
2. If you are driving at night, you should not use high-beam headlights within _________ of oncoming vehicles.
a. 200 feet
b 500 feet
c. 350 feet
d. 450 feet
3. To avoid striking the vehicle in front of you, keep at least _________ following distance.
a. six seconds
b three seconds
c. two seconds
d one second
4. You are looking for a place to park your vehicle and there is a space ahead, near a fire hydrant. You are not allowed to park
a. Within 15 feet of a fire hydrant.
b. Within 18 feet of a fire hydrant.
c. Within 20 feet of a fire hydrant.
5. You are driving a vehicle that has an automatic transmission. When you park on a hill, you should
a. Set the parking brake first, before you shift the transmission into Park.
b. Shift the transmission into Park, and then set the parking brake.
c. Shift the transmission into Park, and leave the parking brake off.
6. How much does it cost to get a “V” veterans designation on a driver’s license, if you are a veteran?
a. It depends on how long it has been since you served in the military
7. A unpaved divider of at least ____ feet is required to not need to stop for a school bus on a divided highway.
8. In the state of Florida, you may be given a fine for unlawful use of a cell phone if
a. A law enforcement officer sees you reading text messages while you are lawfully stopped at a traffic light.
b. You are stopped by a law enforcement officer for a traffic violation, and are found to have been reading text messages while your vehicle was in motion.
c. Both of these.
9. When you see a bicyclist on the road ahead with their left arm extended downward to their left, you should assume the bicyclist is
a. Signaling that they are slowing down or stopping.
b. Signaling to change lanes to the left or make a left turn.
c. Just stretching their arm. It is not a signal of anything.
10. Drivers on an express highway should avoid ‘highway hypnosis’ by:
a. continuously talking on the cell phone
b. listening to very loud music
c. keep shifting eyes from one area of the roadway to another
d. keep moving the car from one lane to another
11. If you refuse to take a breath or blood alcohol level test, your driving privilege is automatically suspended for:
a. 12 months
b. 24 months
c. 36 months
d. 6 months
12. Rectangular, black letters on white background signs are used as:
a. Guide signs
b. Regulatory signs
c. warning signs
d. instruction signs
ANSWERS: 1. C; 2. B; 3. B; 4. A; 5 A; 6. B; 7. A; 8. B; 9. A; 10. C; 11. A; 12. B