By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Ontario’s DriveTest centres are once again open for road tests, but the news is cold comfort for the owners of local driving schools.
Cindy Rosseel, who co-owns Chatham’s Drive Wise, said she can’t get answers from the provincial government as to when she can resume operations.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Rosseel told The Voice. “Our students are beside themselves.”
Rosseel said she’s been trying for days to reach someone in government who can confirm when she’s permitted to open her doors to students.
If you’re booking a driver road test, prepare for a long wait. Since March 2020, nearly 422,000 road tests have been cancelled, falling prey to Ontario’s pandemic lockdown restrictions.
At last count, the earliest available appointment for a would-be driver road testing in Chatham, is in December.
In response to the backlog, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation has approved the recent hire of 167 new driver examiners. That’s on top of the 84 new examiners hired last fall.
According to a recent MTO press release, extended examination hours at DriveTest outlets are in the works and six new outlets will be opened to help alleviate wait time burdens.
Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monte McNaughton, who serves as Ontario’s Labour Minister Responsible for Skills and Development, says he’s aware of the backlog’s impact.
“I know just how important it is for young people to get their driver’s licences,” McNaughton said in a statement.
“They need a car to get a job and they need a licence to help on the farm.
“A driver’s licence is not a ticket to joy-riding,” McNaughton said. “It is a necessity of small town and rural Ontario life.”
But there’s no timeline for as to when the road test backlog will be cleared, or when operations will return to normal.
The lack of prioritization by DriveTest for people who had their tests cancelled by lockdown is salt on the wound.
People who had their tests cancelled in lockdown weren’t prioritized and were instead kicked to the back of the line, left to book another test themselves in an electronic morass.
Hugo Ramos, who runs Community Driver Training in Wallaceburg, said he, like Rosseel, is “frustrated beyond belief.”
Ramos said he can’t understand why taxis, Ubers and limousines are allowed to operate in Ontario but driving schools aren’t.
“How does the virus know the difference?” Ramos questioned, adding safety protocols can be easily managed while instructing a single student in a car.
Ramos, who has been running his school for 25 years, said he didn’t qualify for any pandemic subsidies to help him stay afloat, with the exception of a loan he didn’t want.
He said he’s sick of hearing that Premier Doug Ford has “got our backs.
“I despise that phrase,” he said.
He said SERCO, the private company that operates DriveTest has a “juicy contract” with the province and it all boils down to money.
“They’re still booking tests,” he said. “They’re still making money.”
Currently, Ramos has 30 students stalled in limbo, having completed only a portion of their course.
“There are a lot of kids waiting,” he said. “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”
Both owners can’t understand why Ontario didn’t deem road tests an essential service from the get-go, as the government continued to permit commercial road testing throughout the lockdowns.
Both driving school owners said many of their young clients are now facing hardship because they couldn’t get a test.
Many were unable to take summer jobs, Rosseel explained, and some may not be able to attend college because they can’t legally get behind the wheel.
Rosseel currently has 79 students who are part way through their 40-hour driving course. Because she doesn’t know when she can safely reopen, she isn’t planning any new courses, opting to take names for a wait list instead.
According to Rosseel, a high percentage of students choose to add the DriveTest road examination on to the end of the course, she said. A driving instructor takes the student out for a one-hour refresher prior to their actual test.