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Teens, parents frustrated with wait times for appointments to get learning permits and licenses

Emma Ross would like nothing more than to be able to start driving lessons. The 16-year-old was in the midst of trying to get her instruction permit through the Department of Motor Vehicles when COVID-19 caused DMVs to close for more than two months back in spring.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Emma Ross gets situated in the drivers seat of her fathers car in a parking lot where shes learned basic parking and turning techniques. Ross is one of many teens who hasnt been able to get a permit or license due to extended DMV wait times during the COVID-19 pandemic.She took the knowledge test, but when she didn't pass and needed to retake it, DMV offices across the state began shutting their doors. Most offices started reopening in June by appointment only. Now, it seems taking and passing the test to get a permit is less about studying and more about luck.

Ross and her father, Moses Ross, say appointments are hard to come by in the Portland Metro area. They are among a growing number of Portlanders who've tried to get driver licenses or learner's permits during COVID, only to be left waiting months between available appointment windows, or to never find one at all.

"I actually have been trying to get my permit since before COVID, probably since about January," the teen said. "I was studying for it. I did it about three times and each time it was really quite difficult because the DMV can get quite loud and I get test anxiety. I was supposed to redo it a week before COVID shut down schools and everything else."

The Rosses have run into 45-day wait times between available appointments, unless they want to drive an hour or two to a different county.

That's what Kathy Samsom had to do for her teen.

Her 18-year-old son was able to get his license, but not without hurdles.

"He just needed an appointment to walk in, pay, get the plastic license and turn in paperwork, and we had to wait three months for that," Samsom, who lives in Multnomah Village, said of the process.

She has a 15-year-old daughter ready to start learning how to drive. Samsom said they've waited two and a half months for the provisional instruction permit. There were no appointments in Washington County or Multnomah County, so they're making the trek to a DMV in Corvallis.

ODOT PHOTO: GREG WESTERGAARD  - Customers keep six feet of distance while awaiting service at an Oregon DMV field office.The massive wait times mean teens like Emma Ross aren't able to learn how to drive, and missing out on a seminal part of adolescence during a time when they've already lost so many other critical activities to the pandemic.

"She really wants to feel independent," Moses Ross said of his daughter. "It's so tied to feeling like an adult. She is so excited to get that."

He said he's tried to help his daughter at least master the basics like turns, parking and parallel parking. They've relied on the empty parking lot at the former Sears Army Reserve Center in their Multnomah Village neighborhood.

"I took her to the [armory building] in the village. It has a really big parking lot right there on Multnomah Boulevard," Mr. Ross said. "I took her there with a couple of cones and taught her some basics on driving but that's as far as we've been able to go because of the DMV."

The DMV has also stopped offering in-person drive tests, instead referring the public to use private third-party driving instruction companies to complete the test. Oregon Department of Transportation, which oversees DMV offices, has been sparse in its information to the public about the appointment wait times.

Leah Safran has run into the same problem, noting she's checked every DMV office in the Metro region daily to try to get her daughter in for an appointment to get the instructional permit.

"Why doesn't the DMV website post information and be transparent about this situation?" Safran wants to know. "Even their automated recording when you call their phone line says something like, 'our offices are open and we are taking online appointments,' but that's not true - what appointments?"

"Demand due to the COVID-19 backlog far exceeds DMV's capacity to provide services, especially with the limitations on in-person services to prevent the spread of the virus," said David House, a spokesperson for ODOT. "We are recruiting and hiring new temporary staff and expect to gradually

reintroduce drive testing over the next few months, but it will take months to catch up."

House noted DMV locations have increased appointment capacity.

"We must greatly exceed our capacity of normal times in order to catch up, and we're working on that," House said. "In fact, during September, except for the interruption of the tragic wildfires and hazardous air conditions the following week, we were able to gradually increase our appointment capacity from about 16,000 per week statewide to 22,000 per week. In normal times, field offices provided about 13,750 transactions a week. It's difficult to even guess the magnitude of the backlog or how long it will take us to catch up."

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Kathy Samsom's name. The Connection regrets the error.

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