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Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp makes a U-turn on the cancellation of practical driving tests for citizens

How has federalism played a role in the variety of state responses across the US?

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Image Credit: Ken Lund

Federalism is the system of governance employed in the US. This means that the general federal government must operate in conjunction with state governments. This system has resulted in a patchwork of different rules and regulations evident across the United States. Coronavirus has drawn attention to this with certain states including Alaska and Georgia choosing to relax lockdown measures against scientific and federal government advice. Interestingly however, the pandemic has also highlighted unexpected portrayals of federalism, namely in Georgia’s temporary decision to ditch the practical driving test.

Under normal circumstances, learning drivers from Georgia undergo a three-stage programme of obtaining licences before becoming a fully licenced driver. The first licence is granted after passing a theory test and it warrants individuals to drive under the supervision of a fully licenced driver. The second licence is granted after passing a practical driving test and with this the driver is given increased liberty to drive independently. Finally, the full licence is awarded if the individual hasn’t committed any major driving offences within the 12-month window after obtaining the Stage Two licence. As you can see, the process to becoming a fully licenced driver is certainly long-winded.

Coronavirus has created a huge pause in the processing of new driving licences in Georgia. The backlog has been immense. An average of 5,000 teens would have been taking the test every week, all of which had to be cancelled due to the necessity of social distancing measures.

On April 30, Brian Kemp, Governor of Georgia, announced that learning drivers who had already had 40 hours of supervised driving may obtain the Stage Two licence without taking a practical driving test. This caused uproar in the media. How could it be sanctioned that untested drivers have free reign on the road?

UK reactions to the decision were disapproving. In 2017, the UK driving test difficulty level was altered in the attempt of reducing road accidents. Furthering this, in the wake of the death of Harry Dunn, there is a sense of public scepticism towards American drivers. Mr Dunn was killed in a road collision accident when Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat from South Carolina, exited a junction driving on the wrong side of the road.

The irony in Kemp’s decision, however, was that while he justified cancelling the driving test on the grounds of social distancing, he simultaneously sanctioned the reopening of many businesses such as hair salons in which social distancing measures would be near impossible to fulfil. It seems odd to justify increasing public risk on the roads by the need to maintain public health, meanwhile simultaneously increasing public health risk via relaxing the lockdown.

On 12 May, Kemp’s decision was reconsidered. In light of concerns regarding the safety of his decision, Georgia now requires learning drivers to take a modified road test. Nevertheless, some have questioned whether disapproval towards Kemp’s original decision was an overreaction.

The three-stage programme in Georgia meant that drivers automatically receiving their stage two licence weren’t novices to the roads. Only those pupils who had already completed a driving theory test, alongside 40 hours of supervised driving, had the opportunity to advance to their second licence test-free. In addition to this, Stage two licence holders only receive their full licence if they have no major traffic offences for a further year. It seems that the decision to ‘cancel the driving test’ was not as extreme as it sounded. According to Spencer. R. Moore, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS), the first-time pass rate for the road test typically runs at over 80% anyway.

Nevertheless, the question then comes to equity and responsibility. Is it really fair to automatically grant Stage One licence holders a Stage Two licence, when every previous Stage One licence holder has had to take the test? Furthering this, who would be responsible if an untested Stage Two licence holder committed a serious driving fault? Who can truly hold responsibility for that?

Perhaps it was these notions of equity and responsibility which led Kemp to reconsider his decision, and restore the driving test to Georgia.

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