Parents frustrated over Minnesota driver's test backlog as special session looms

Minnesota reopened driver's tests to the general public this week for the first time in months, but frustration set in almost immediately over the backlog caused by the coronavirus.

The state's Driver and Vehicle Services canceled 19,041 tests because of the pandemic and has rescheduled 13,317 to date, according to data provided by the agency.

Until Monday, DVS was only rebooking tests that were canceled from March to May, chipping away at that backlog but creating a new one among people trying to book exams for the first time. Now that DVS has reopened the system to the public, parents are reporting no available time slots near their homes for months.

When asked about the situation, a DVS spokeswoman suggested that people should keep refreshing their web browsers.

"DVS schedules six months in advance online for class D road tests," said Megan Leonard, the spokeswoman. "Additional appointments may open up due to cancellations and staff availability, so Minnesotans should continue to check for available appointments online."

The backlog -- which existed before the coronavirus and was made worse when the pandemic forced the state to close exam stations -- has gotten the attention of Minnesota lawmakers. The Legislature is poised to return for a special session starting Friday.

Gov. Tim Walz is not planning to push for further legislation to address the backlog during the special session, a spokesman said.

Some people had exams canceled twice: once when the pandemic hit, and again when they rescheduled at an exam station that DVS later decided to keep closed, Leonard acknowledged. State officials decided to consolidate 92 exam stations into 15 regional hubs to get them reopened in late May after about 10 weeks of closures.

Chris Fenske of Cottonwood said he logged on Monday morning before work to find an appointment for his son, who turns 16 years old in August. He knew Monday was the first day the general public could book an appointment, but there were no available time slots in nearby Marshall, Willmar or several other places, Fenske said.

"I suppose if you sat around and kept refreshing, maybe you’d find something over the course of a day, but not everyone has that option," Fenske said in an interview. "You’re left with essentially having to book one and then if something opens up, canceling that one if something opens up closer to home. It’s frustrating that that has to be an option."

Fenske said said some kids in his community would be needed to work on the farm in the fall, but still might not have their licenses.

Emailing DVS for help isn't an option. Email processing time is 31 days, according to the agency's website.

DVS plans to conduct 111,500 road tests by the end of the year, said Leonard, the agency spokeswoman. She did not answer when asked whether that would be enough to erase the backlog of canceled tests and those waiting to book for the first time.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns about DVS's lack of transparency and inability to gain control over the backlog.

State Sen. Karin Housley said she would push during the coming special session to allow private companies to conduct road tests. The Republican-controlled Senate passed that bill this spring, but House Democrats and the state Department of Public Safety opposed it over safety concerns.

"We have to open up the private license testers. It’s the only way this backlog is going to get fixed and as soon as possible we have to do that," said Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, in an interview.

DVS has instead asked lawmakers to allow it expand third-party testing of commercial driver's licenses. CDLs make up a small fraction of the overall number of tests, and Republican lawmakers have said it wouldn't be enough.

"I'm not going to make the changes DVS suggested because they don't work," Housley said.

The agency has also sought the ability to impose a no-show fee on people who don't honor their appointments. On May 26, the first day DVS restarted exams, 13 people didn't show up before noon, Leonard said.

Fenske said he didn't see how DVS would be able to catch up after 10 weeks of being shut down, and said he hoped lawmakers could find an agreement to ease the backlog.

"We know they’re probably headed back for special session so we’re just hoping that maybe some problems can be solved that way on behalf of kids and get some relief," he said.