District-offered driver ed wait times, quality frustrate families 

N.C.’s two largest school districts both use the same instruction vendor

Some families are using private driver education companies, like Benson Driving School, because of struggles with county-offered providers. (Cory Lavalette / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — The North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles has been the subject of at least two legislative oversight committee hearings in the last six months. Most recently, lawmakers focused on contract issues during a March 7 hearing but also covered customer satisfaction problems, including teen driving license processes.

Frustration with booking teen license appointments was brought up at that hearing by Sen. Michael Lazzara (R-Onslow), one of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee’s co-chairs, who wants to see the NCDMV privatized.

Lazzara gave an example of a law enforcement officer having to make “multiple trips” and “wait in line for hours” to get his teenagers their driving tests.

NCDMV Commissioner Wayne Goodwin said his office amended the way appointments were made to better serve more customers by offering online appointment booking for morning hours and leaving afternoon hours open for walk-ins.

The shortened daily block for online appointments has unintentionally created an issue for teen drivers trying to get appointments because the online booking system schedules appointments on a rolling basis for only three months at a time. When trying to book an appointment before a permit deadline, teens have had difficulty finding availability — even in offices in neighboring counties.

Lazzara’s example resonates with parents who are also critical of the courses provided by their districts.

“My son recently got his permit after too many months of delays and slow rollout of in-classroom and in-car class,” Russell Lichtenstein, whose son attends Fuquay-Varina High School in Wake County, told North State Journal. “Not to mention the ridiculous tiered system that wouldn’t allow him to get his ‘real’ license on his 16th birthday,” which happened earlier in March.

Another Wake County parent, Kristi Moyer Davis, said, “The public school is so unorganized,” prompting her family to opt for a private driving course. She said going private was expensive, but it was all done in a week unlike through the school system where “kids will have a class and it takes months to get to driving part.”

North Carolina law requires a three-tiered teen learner’s permit process that can take years to complete if one includes the time it takes to get enrolled and complete the state-required driver education training course.

Per the NCDMV, to advance through the tiers student drivers need to hold a given tier permit for a certain time period and log specific driving hours that include both day and nighttime driving. Level 1 is the limited learner’s permit and costs $21.50. Level 2, the limited provisional license (also $21.50), must be held for nine months during which students are required to log 60 hours of driving time. The Level 3, or full provisional license ($5.50) must held for six months with 12 logged hours of driving.

Beginning July 1, all three prices will increase by $1. The increase will occur due to a state law mandating an increase every four years based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.

In order to apply for and obtain a Level 1 permit, a driver education course must be completed per state law. The state-mandated driver education classes consist of 30 hours of classroom instruction, a vision and medical screening, and a minimum of six hours of behind-the-wheel training.

The pandemic caused significant delays for driver training courses. To alleviate the problem, the legislature temporarily shortened some of the time periods for which permits had to be held in order to advance to the next tier.

Some students, however, are still experiencing delays that may be due in part to the use of a single company to conduct the courses.

The state’s two largest districts, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS) and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools (CMS), both use one vendor: Jordan Driving School.

CMS’s 2023-24 contract with Jordan is for more than $2.639 million. The cost per student is not broken down in the contract, however, a COVID-19 relief grant of $45,222 was included “to help alleviate the backlog” caused by the pandemic.

For WCPSS, the most recent contract for 2023-24 lists the cost at $1.7 million; $1.80 for classroom instruction and $208 for behind-the-wheel training per student.

Records show Guilford County Public Schools contracts with NC Driving School. The most recent contract for 2023 shows the district paid $1.176 million for driver education classes.

Not all districts use an outside vendor for driver education. In response to a records request, New Hanover County Public Schools stated the district “only use(s) internal NHCS staff” for the courses but did not provide a dollar figure.

Parents have been frustrated by long response wait times from those in charge of registering students for courses both before and after the pandemic.

CherylAnn Houseman, a Johnston County Schools parent, opted for private driver education courses because the “free” school program was so behind “thanks to the (pandemic) lockdowns.”

Other parents cited lengthy delays in district-offered courses as well as a lack of value in them.

“In my opinion, it was a complete waste of money. A perfect example of government-mandated training,” Wake County parent Ted Hicks said. “I also remember them teaching her to park — on the wrong side of the road in a fire lane. Complete waste of money.

“So we have all these ‘trained’ and ‘licensed’ drivers, but you sure can’t tell by getting out on I-40.”

About A.P. Dillon 1294 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_